Sunday, April 04, 2010

`He Glanced at Thousands of Books'

“Emerson did not read in order to pick up the common coin of his culture or class. He did not even read with the Arnoldian hope of learning the best that had been thought and said. Emerson read for personal gain, for personal use.”

The three explanations Robert D. Richardson offers for Emerson’s lifetime of hearty, almost gluttonous reading are not mutually exclusive. To varying degrees, at various times, all have driven me, though the third is most compelling. Our first stop in Portland after checking in at the hotel was Powell’s, where I finally bought Richardson’s most recent book, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Collectively, his biographies of Emerson, Thoreau and William James have influenced me more than the works of any other living writer, except possibly Geoffrey Hill.

I also picked up The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets by the late Aldo Buzzi, Stevie Smith’s Collected Poems and a lovely1929 edition of Charles Lamb’s Last Essays of Elia -- all books I‘ve read before, many times in the case of the latter two, but have never owned. I was surprised that Powell’s, at least according to its digital catalog, had not a single title by or about A.J. Liebling, Zbigniew Herbert or Michael Oakeshott.

We walked to the Portland Public Library and took a picture of the boys sitting on a stone bench with “Henry Fielding” carved on the back. A large black man stopped on the sidewalk, pointed at me and said to the boys, emphatically. “You guys got a good Dad there!” At the Portland Art Museum we viewed an exhibition ridiculously titled “More Than a Pretty Face: 150 Years of the Portrait Print” that contained two prints each by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn and one each by Balthus and Milton Avery. Richardson writes of Emerson:

“He generally took more books out of the library than he was able to read before they were due back. His charging records at the Boston Athenaeum, the Harvard College Library, and the Boston Society Library are not so much a measure of his intake as of his appetite. He glanced at thousands of books. He read carefully many hundreds that caught his attention. He returned over and over to a favorite few, including Montaigne, Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, de Stael, and Wordsworth.”


ghostofelberry said...

i remember well my gluttonous withdrawal of books from my uni library - one of the biggest university libraries in the world, they had everything, aisles of untouched Kierkegaard, Rumi, Augustine, minor poets, all a growing elberry needs. i would usually take out three - one poetry, one novel, and one non-fiction, usually philosophy or theology. The best moment was taking them out of my manbag in my room and contemplating them, wondering which to open first. i suppose books, as well as being whatever they are (paper, ink marks) are symbols (of a knowledge we don't have, or have forgotten) - and so are libraries for that matter.

Levi Stahl said...

I'm going to have to read Richardson's Emerson and Thoreau biographies. I thought his biography of William James, a writer I love, was wonderful, and I've had Thoreau on my mind regularly lately as I keep dipping into the splendid new edition of his journals put out by the NYRB. And the journal, as a good journal should, makes me want to know more about the life behind it.