Once a year I try to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. I used to open the book to a random page, but lately have been going straight to the essay “Self-Reliance.” I might go back to my old approach, because “Self-Reliance” has become a dead end for me. Time and again I read the first few pages and realize I understand almost nothing. I always, however, find a small gem that makes sense to me, and it is just enough to bring me back for another attempt. In one reading, for example, I gleaned that I should trust my own intellectual abilities and not rely on the likes of Emerson to validate my own creative thoughts.❋
My original copy of Emerson’s Essays is dated 1885. The binding is broken, but the pages hold up well enough to be read without further damage. It is the oldest book I own, and I treasure it too much to write in the margins. A few years ago, I went on Alibris (the online used bookstore) and purchased a second copy specifically for writing in. My plan was to use notes in the margins as small guideposts for any future readings. Unfortunately, when my new copy arrived in the mail, it was an oversized boxed edition with ornamental text. It easily is the most beautiful book in my personal library, and for several months I wasn’t able to write in its margins either. Eventually I concluded that the biggest compliment I can give to a book is to wear it out, so now I annotate the gilded copy in pencil.
I did not write this blog because of a recent run-in with Emerson. If anything, it might move me to give Essays another try. I chose this week’s topic because I currently am reading two other authors who also give me trouble. One is Noam Chomsky, the other C. S. Lewis. As with Emerson, I’ve been looking for understandable gems within the complicated text, and to some extent, it has worked. This morning I came across the following line in Lewis’ The Abolition of Man: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”❊ Ecologically speaking, no one should be doing either, but the metaphor works, and it gives me something to think about.
❋ The quote in “Self-Reliance” reads, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” Emerson, R. W. 1885. “Self-Reliance.” in Essays by R. W. Emerson. New York: John B. Alden, Publishers, p. 43.
❊ Lewis, C. S. (1944,1974). The Abolition of Man. HarperSanFrancisco, p. 13.