Tag Archives: Emerson

Of Bloggers, Bookworms, and Bibliomaniacs

Because I’ve been teaching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, “The Poet” and “The American Scholar,” I’ve been spending a good bit of time over at rwe.org, which describes itself as “The Internet’s Complete Guide to the Life and Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The description is awfully modest for a site devoted to a thinker whom literary theorist Harold Bloom described as “God,” but it is also awfully accurate. Indeed, every time I visit rwe.org, I find myself thinking wistfully, “What if everything on the web devoted to literature were actually this good, this complete, this organized, this useful?”

EmersonWould that it were so, but the net’s strength tends to be volume while quality, completeness, and organization are hit and miss. Of course, a lot of these things depend on not only copyright laws, but also on attracting a devoted following willing to do the work necessary. By every evidence, and not just that of Harold Bloom, the cult of Emerson remains strong. The Emersonians over at rwe.org have clearly done a great work for all of us by creating a digital monument to this most seminal of American thinkers.

Which is itself an irony and an occasion for thought. In the first place, Emerson wasn’t much given to monuments or to being monumental. In the second place, what exactly would this thinker who believed immersion in nature was the first responsibility of “Man Thinking” think about our dependence on technology, our bleary-eyed devotion to the glowing screen, our aching backs as we bend over our keyboards, our pasty complexions that testify that we have all but forgotten the existence of the sun.

My first guess is that he would be appalled by both his own monumentuality, and by our unnatural lives. Though, at the same time, it isn’t impossible to imagine Emerson as the God of not only Harold Bloom, but the first progenitor of netizens everywhere.

My sense of Emerson’s displeasure centers on Emerson’s general disease with reading. This from “The American Scholar”:

The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

Yet hence arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, — the act of thought, — is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is disparaged. Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

(From RWE.org – The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I wish I had thought of the name “Bibliomaniac” when I was getting my personal blog started. The description is apt. Though for Emerson, of course, a sign of damnation. He would have detested the accompanying image from Northwestern University’s Library, however much I love it. But really, isn’t this more or less the image of not just ManBookworm Northwestern Reading Books, but also Man Reading Computer Screen? (Or even Man Blogging?) Through my devotion to the thoughts and words of others, I drift gradually from my own authenticity, my own innate and good self-expression, my personal experience of the Over-Soul. To be derivative is to be damned, and the only sure way to avoid derivation is to not read at all.

Well, to be sure, Emerson doesn’t go quite this far. But he was suspicious of the obeisance we give to thinkers of old. Written when he was a relatively young man, he probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the fact that he, like all flesh living, was on the way to becoming a thinker of old. And he could not have imagined me poring over and ingesting his words like a bookworm as I prepare to teach a class on him as one of the monumental literary theorist of the nineteenth century.

(Sidebar: What metaphor must we now use in place of bookworm in the world of pixels? A computer virus? Another term like “typewriter” that my someday-grandchildren will not recollect and will marvel at as an index of my age and lack of cool. Who am I kidding—my son already marvels at these things. Of course, if we give up reading altogether, spending all our time blogging, we won’t have to worry about having a different word. )

But there is a place for good reading in Emerson, and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, it has something to do with reading as a creative act. Says Emerson.

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.

I think this kind of thing, along with Emerson’s deeply felt sense of the interconnections of the immediate world with a world beyond—and with everything else in the world–is where people get the idea that Emerson was some kind of ancient God of the blogosphere. Indeed, Christopher Lydon a few years back said just this thing in an extended blog post called “A God for Bloggers.” The post at its original site is long gone, but is copied in full here . In part, Lydon argues:

Here’s my point. When we talk about this Internet and this
blogging software, this techno-magic that encourages each of us to be
expressive voices in an open, universal network of across-the-board
conversation, we are speaking of an essentially Emersonian device for
an essentially Emersonian exercise. Starting with the
electronics. “Invent a better mousetrap,” as Emerson wrote, “and the
world will beat a path to your door.”

There’s a part of me that thinks Emerson would have loved the fact that Lydon’s post had disappeared, or almost disappeared. This is the perfect condition of reading as far as Emerson is concerned: let the book/blog have its say and go away.

To Lydon’s actual content, I want to say….yeah, kind of….but not really. In the first place, there’s a way in which the technology of blogging and reading blogs tethers us to society—Emerson’s worst dirty word—in a way that books did not, this despite the aura of freedom that surrounds computerworld.

Even with the magnificence of access, I am struck by how physically limited I am in terms of my mode of access. My computer needs a proximate cord and electricity and connections—electricity even if I have a wireless connection, and reliable wireless connections are still hard to come by. Because I know next to nothing about the workings of this machine I’m writing on, because I can do nothing to control my internet connection, because I have to have access to various levels of anonymous administrators and their vast electronic resources, I am in some sense even more dependent, more inescapably tethered to society and its mores and its conventions than Emerson could have ever imagined.

We have the lovely illusion of independent creativity in our isolation, in our loggorhea of the keyboard, in our incessant speech. It’s a little like cocaine makes the addict think he’s an all powerful sex machine. The real power is the man who provides the fix. Or doesn’t. In this case, my internet administrator, or more dumbly, the squirrel that gets itself electrocuted in the router box or powerline.

By comparison, a book is a model of self-reliance, even compared to e-books with megabatteries. I can drop my copy of Ulysses in a lake, and if I’m quick enough I can probably set it by a fire, let it dry for a while, and be just fine. Then again, if not I have a new and ready supply of toilet paper, Kleenex, and firestarter.

By comparison my daughter’s ipod died irreparably after sitting next to a sweating water bottle for thirty minutes. Sitting in the sauna today, I was wondering—can an e-book stand the heat, stand those rivers of sweat that dripped off my nose into the creases of the cheap newsprint I was perusing. Could be, but I would be afraid to try. If I ruin my newspaper I’m out three bucks. If I ruin my dedicated e-reader—the one I will supposedly buy someday—I would be out 400 plus however many hundreds of dollars of books I stored up. Emerson might well look at bloggers and e-books and the like and see not evidence of infinite expressibility, but of cows in a pen.

Not saying he would be right, but he would have reason. This cow says.

Similarly, I have my doubts about the idea that blogging, simply because it is a form of expression, is the kind of expressiveness that Emerson had in mind. Indeed, for Emerson the deadliest thing for individual authenticity was repetition, was convention. And yet, does it take very much time on the web to realize just how repetitive blogging really is, just how much of it is reaction rather than response. How much of it is profane ejaculation rather than creative reading Indeed, I’m often bemused by how many blogs are largely cut and paste jobs of other blogs. Bloggers not only don’t come up with words of their own, they explicitly and joyfully use the words of others as a substitute for words of their own.

By comparison my own blog is a paen to self-indulgence. I actually write these things myself. Mostly.

At least all this lack of originality orginates with me.

In other words, there’s a part of the net’s emphasis on collaboration and connectivity that speaks to Emerson’s optimistic view of the interconnectivity of all things. There’s another part of it that speaks to Emerson’s sense of “the sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude” , where people let groups think for them rather than thinking, and speaking, for themselves.

You don’t, of course, have to rely on me for this. Rely on yourself…and on the administrators at RWE.org, and on your computer engineer, and on your electrical grid, and on your software engineer… and on…and on. Well you get my drift.

Go over to the folks at RWE.org and read Emerson for yourself.

Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

Ok, to get to Diarrhea, you have to read to the end of this post.



I got some very good comments from “Hugh” who is a poobah of some sort over at Librivox. You should go read his comments yourself at my post, “Listening as Reading,” but a couple of excerpts here since I want to think about what he has to say. (And, hey, it’s a cheap way to come up with a post when it’s late at night and I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.

Says Hugh:

“in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.”

Yes, a good thing to point out, continuous with my general observation that for the longest part of human history reading was primarily about reading aloud, not reading silently. I’m not quite sure I would go completely down the road that books in the nineteenth century were written to be read out loud. This misconstrues the case. But it is the case that they were commonly read out loud, and there was a great deal of fluidity between the oral presentation and the written. Dickens is a good representative of this fluidity. I’m not quite sure I would say Dicken’s wrote his books in order to read them out loud. He wrote them in order to get them published serially in magazines. But it is absolutely true that he often rewrote and rewrote passages over and over in order to achieve certain kinds of emotional effects in his listening audience. Thus there’s a deep connection between the orality of the word and the writtenness of the word. A fluid interchange of sorts. I still tell students they ought to read their work outloud to themselves in order to hear how things sound. This can be a good guide to the kind of rhetorical affects you are achieving.

Says Hugh again:

“-we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.

-and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:


This last is very helpful, though I wish the list was more organized. I clicked through some of the recommended readings and–on the basis of very short sampling–most of them are superior to some of the detritus I’ve waded through the past few times I’ve strolled through Librivox. I wish that Librivox would provide some kind of ratings system itself–at least one that recognized the popularity of different readings–though I suspect that this would counter the dream of pure democratic participationism that drives this kind of thing on the web.

As for Librivox being primarily about the readers and not the listeners, something Hugh tells me in a second comment, I’m not so sure. (I think Hugh didn’t think it was fair of me to criticize many of the readers for being…well…Dull. Or annoying. Or both). To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording. Well, OK. But the thrill of doing so is that people will listen in, yes? I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that people might actually look at this blog, why not just keep it on my computer instead of publishing it for all the world to sneer at.

It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist. There are a lot of opera singers out there who really ought to spare the rest of us and restrict their renditions of Nessun Dorma to the safety of their shower stalls. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge them the right to perform for the world on YouTube. But if they do, I generally think we’ve got a right and responsibility to Puccini and to Pavorotti to say, “You know, that really stinks pretty badly.” There’s no inherent nobility in performing, contrary to what most Americans seem to think.

But enough. Mostly I’m on Hugh’s side here. I’m glad someone’s doing something like Librivox, even if I don’t want to listen to most of the people doing it.



I blogged a bit about Emerson today on the blog dedicated to my course on literary theory. Just a bit of that from a post I called “Emerson and the Gods of Reading”:

Along these lines, I think there’s a way in which Emerson’s notions of creative reading are embodied in the way we read now. For Emerson, reading was a threatening activity precisely because we were always tending toward submission and passivity, always on the brink of substituting someone else’s creativity or knowledge for our own. This would mean we had failed to be “The Poet” we were meant to be and in fact are if we would only realize it. Instead, reading only exists to a purpose if it inspires us to more writing of our own. Reading must always give forth in to new and different expression, or it is worthless. Reading that absorbs and doesn’t give forth in new creativity, reading that doesn’t come to an end in writing is destructive to rather than an enhancement of our humanity.

What is this if not the reading ethic of blogging. Emerson, the familiar spirit of Facebook culture. Reading for us now is only meaningful if it gives forth in self expression. Indeed, texts become primarily a means of further self-expression. I read other texts or find other materials on the internet in order to “blog” them. The verb in this sense means partly to write about them, but blogging something also connotes making it one’s own, making it an opportunity for self-expression, an opportunity to speak.

I don’t think I want to deride this outright. NPR had someone–maybe the founder of Facebook-?!-on today with a little piece on the glories of connectivity available through self-exposure. It seemed a little facile–by exposing my darkest secrets on the net I’ll be able to develop authentic relationships with people I’ve never met. Umm, maybe. If this were true, why not go expose yourself to your next door neighbor. Still, it is the case that kinds of connections are built through this incessant speaking. Ultimately, for Emerson, our seeking expression at the expense of reading was not a form of self-aggrandizement, though it’s often taken for that. It was ultimately a way of connecting to a broader world. In Emerson’s view, if all people would become The Poet they were meant to be, all the world would be saved and we would all be one. It’s ultimately a platonic evangelical Christian vision without Christ in some sense. If we’ll all individually get right with Jesus, we’ll all be one. The internet says something vaguely similar. If we would all just keep looking for ways of expressing ourselves through the texts of others, we will all be connected through what is, after all, the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but it seemed profound at the time. Parents are paying for this stuff. It better be.



Ok, this doesn’t refer to the stinky liquid spew that this post is fast becoming. Or not only that.

I often tell my English students that there is a magazine about everything, so they can take their writing skills and find a job anywhere in the world. The last part is a department chair’s fantasy, but there really is a journal about everything in the world.

Witness “Dialogue On Diarrhea.” Yes, there is a journal covering everything you wanted to know about loose stools. Ok, I should say there used to be a journal. In the words of the web site:

Dialogue on Diarrhoea was an international newsletter on the control of diarrhoeal diseases published by Healthlink Worldwide (formerly AHRTAG), a UK-based non-governmental organisation.

The first issue was published in May 1980.The last of a total of 60 issues, during its 15 years, was published in May 1995.

Published four times a year, Dialogue on Diarrhoea offered clear, practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases. It also acted as a forum for readers to exchange ideas and share experiences.

Umm, just what kind of experiences are we sharing here exactly?

Anyway, the print newsletter is no more. And now instead we have “Dialogue On Diarrhea Online”. So the next time you have this problem, you’ll know where to head. Besides the bathroom. I mean.

And, as we think of it, doesn’t this point to the last important remaining geography in which print remains triumphant. Bathroom reading. It’s a bit tragic that the diarrheatics among us will now have to carry their Kindles to the bathroom in order to keep up on the latest and share their experiences. On the other hand, with laptop in hand they will now be able to share their experiences in a much more intimate and immediate way.

Ok, I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve now insulted all the chronic diarrhea sufferers who regularly read this blog. And none of my students will ever get an internship with this website. That’s for sure.

Final note: I thought for sure I would be the only person on WordPress who used the word “diarrhea” in a tag. No. There are hundreds of us.

Isn’t the web a wonderful place?

Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?

On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.