Books are the best of things, well used: abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world of value is the active soul,—the soul, free, sovereign, active.
One must be an inventor to read well.
Emerson, “The American Scholar” 1837
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Emerson—too long. I was taken aback by his discussion of texts in this essay. Part of me remembered how important it was, the other had forgotten how scandalous. Between those who would dismiss texts and those who would idolize them he strikes the perfect, impossible balance. Texts must engage us with truth. To that degree they leave themselves behind, their work being done. The closer we are to our full humanity, the more they become instruments. And by closer he means a kind of openness, an eagerness to engage nature, a vulnerability to reality as that which is greater than we are.
To be an inventor…Emerson believes we are closest to the divine when we create. How this stands the lazy conception of truth happily on its head! For too many truth is that which we repeat. At this point the books become noxious, the guides tyrants, horizons walls.