Ralph Waldo Emerson on books

by on June 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

From his Notebooks, (the best Emerson to read, in my view) circa 1841:

We are too civil to books.  For a few golden sentences we will turn over & actually read a volume of 4 or 500 pages.  Even the great books. “Come,” say they, “we will give you the key to the world” — Each poet each philosopher says this, & we expect to go like a thunderbolt to the centre, but the thunder is a superficial phenomenon, makes a skin-deep cut, and so does the Sage — whether Confucius, Menu, Zoroaster, Socrates; striking at right angles to the globe his force is instantly diffused laterally & enters not.  The wedge turns out to be a rocket.  I have found this to be the case with every book I have read & yet I take up a new writer with a sort of pulse beat of expectation.

1 dirk June 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm

He also wrote (probably sometime later): “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.”

2 mike kenny June 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

rough guess, i think most nonfiction books i read i get about 40 pages of interesting material out of, and the rest doesn’t add much. that’s maybe 10 percent of an average book. maybe the 80/20 rule for books is more like 90/10.

somewhat along these lines:


3 Nick June 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm

If he felt this way in 1841, his head would explode if he read the average nonfiction today.

4 mk June 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I used to agree strongly with this viewpoint. Lately I’ve come to think that this way of thinking misses something about the way we absorb information.

I tend to think that to get some subjects you just need “a good soak” with the material. You need to treat the topic like a building whose halls you wander around, even aimlessly, taking everything in, and having time to make your own evaluations and interpretations of the raw information. If a book were compressed to a long magazine article, or blog post, or Powerpoint, you might fail to extract the full picture, even if the most important bits and analyses are present.

Ultimately, I think the mind is truly doing something productive while you read the less essential, “filler” sections of the book — the mind isn’t just wandering or juggling words it will soon forget. It is taking in information, and taking the time and space necessary to sift through and interpret what it is reading.

That said, I’m sure there are lots of poorly edited books out there that should have been much shorter.

5 mk June 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm

A quicker way to make the point is by analogy — a long book is a series of strolls through the building, while a compressed version is a glance at the blueprints. Yes, you can get much information more quickly using the second method, but since the goal is often to retain, interpret, and emotionally respond to the text (even if nonfiction), a longer, more social engagement is often called for.

Ultimately, books and compressed-forms-of-books are complementary ways to approach information.

6 Rahul June 16, 2011 at 12:22 am

With books though, here’s where the analogy breaks up:

If a hundred different people read the same book would they produce the same blueprint?

7 Ron Potato June 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

On the other hand, he was already so well read.

The average person could learn a lot from books, especially pre-20th century books.

8 Eric Rasmusen June 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm

That’s why Bartlett’s Quotations is such a great book. Churchill, I think, recommended it for that reason.

9 Anthony June 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Tyler – do we need to read any more of Emerson’s “Notebooks” now?

10 Nicole June 15, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Books are so good to help us see beyond our immediate horizons and limitations. You need to feed your mind with good books.

11 axa June 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm

fiction books are fun and great, sometimes you don’t like when the 1000 page book comes to and end.

however, non-fiction books most of time just got a couple of interesting ideas. the rest is just a filler to get a 400 pages book so book publishers can sell something. this book type fulfills the demand of people who wants “to be informed by reading books, just books”. if you are really interested in a topic, you look for research papers where the information is compressed into 12-20 pages. also, most of what you read today in papers is gonna be published in book format in 5 or 10 years later. so, non-fiction books are only useful where you are a complete ignorant about some topic, when you need the “big picture” story. from that point, you can move on into more specialized reading.

ps. funny thing is that research papers (15 pages PDF) cost the same as 400 pages non-fiction books.

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