FootnotesMarch 11th, 2011
Reading and Writing: Emerson by Dr. George Sheehan
"Wisdom comes after information and knowledge. Books provide the scaffolding that allows us to build our own system of thought."
"We are too civil to books," writes Emerson." For a few golden sentences we read 400 to 500 pages." Still he opened every new book with anticipation. He spent his life searching for sentences. Most, of course, came from within. The original thoughts of an original thinker. But he was always ready for any person or book or lecture to open his mind to a new perception.
Even the great books, says Emerson, fail to deliver on their promise. "Come, they say, we will give you the key to the world." Each poet, each philosopher says this. But we never get to the center. What we must draw on is our own experiences. Write our own sentences. And read Emerson.
To open Emerson is to plunge into a raging surf of ideas. One must stop to get one's breath, to restore the points of the compass. The ideas come like huge powerful waves that threaten your previous placid existence. You must stretch yourself mentally to stay afloat. You must be at the top of your powers to survive.
"Books are for nothing but to inspire." Emerson's do that. His message: to make the most of ourselves, to trust ourselves and to be ourselves to the uttermost. Emerson looked for that inspiration himself. He found it in Shakespeare, Plato, Plutarch, Montaigene. But his thoughts ultimately were his own.
And so it should be. The golden sentences in Emerson should inspire us. They will help us understand our own experience. They may express it better than we ever will. But we cannot stop there. We must have our own thoughts, make our own sentences. "These novels," writes Emerson, "will give way to diaries and autobiographies--captivating books if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly."
This is why writers have a love-hate relationship with books. We read books looking for that sudden revelation of truth and by doing so delay revealing our own. "To put away one's original thought in order to take up a book," writes Schopenauer, "is a sin against the Holy Ghost."
Fine for Schopenauer whose mind apparently teemed with thoughts and had the talent to express them. But what about us who doubt we have any original ideas. And in any case, lack the skills to set them down. Is not reading our salvation, not our damnation?
We need books. First, to be educated. Emerson knew Shakespeare by heart, and read widely in the classics and Eastern philosophers. He knew his world and he principles that governed it. The great thinkers begin by knowing what others think. Wisdom comes after information and knowledge. Books provide the scaffolding that allows us to build our own system of thought.
In the end, our lives depend on that. We must think for ourselves. There is no precedent for you or me. Each of us is different from anyone else. So others can be no more than guides. They tell us what is successful for them. We must find what is successful for us.
Emerson expresses our own ambivalence toward books. In one essay he tells us we must read. He even gives us a list of the books he finds most valuable. Then on an equally convincing essay he tells us there is no need to read. In one piece he has quotes from other thinkers in virtually every paragraph; and in the next he says, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you think."
That is what writing is. Telling people what you think. Telling other people certainly, but primarily yourself. That is why we must write. To find out what we think. To discover what we believe. Until we say it or write it down we are unaware of what is actually at the root of our lives.
Good, honest, frank speech goes a long way, but writing is best. Writing permits of revision and revision aids precision. Spontaneity is good. Sincerity is better. But what we want to attain is veracity-the truth as best we can put it into words. This is by all accounts hard work even for the best.
We should know that the catalyst for this process is often someone else's writing. How many a man had dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. Perhaps not so much from reading a new book but from coming upon a person who sees life in a slightly different way-and that way a sudden opening to your own hidden or unexpressed thoughts on the matter.
We must be civil to books. It is worth reading 400-500 pages to find a few golden sentences that can change our lives.
Copyright © The George Sheehan Trust