Emerson on Books

“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. This everyman is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn.”

                       – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar

It is understandable how some readers of The American Scholar have a misconception about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory pertaining to books, and that he believes that reading is unnecessary. The indication behind the first sentence is that Emerson believes that books can be used in two ways. They can be “well used,” which he is in favor of. Or the use of books can be abusive, which he is not in favor of. The first line in the passage negates the notion that he finds books to be unnecessary by him referring to them as “the best of things.” Additionally, using the word “well” allows for him to alter the negative connotation typically suggested by the word “used” to give thought to his central question pertaining to the positive usage of books and their importance. However, Emerson wants to make it very clear to the reader that books are only to be “used” in a correct manner as a guide or an aide. The next piece of the sentence is where Emerson introduces his qualm about books, “abused, among the worst.” The primary question is, what does Emerson mean by suggesting that books are abused, and how can one differentiate between using a book well, and abusing its substance?

The next question is “what is the right use?” Before answering this primary question, another question needs to be asked. When Emerson uses the word “books” does he only mean books? No, of course he does not just literally mean books, but is referring to the “mind of the past” (58). Therefore, it is important to clarify that when Emerson uses the word “books” in the passage that he is referring not to the physical pages, but to their content, which can be found in written form, art, a lecturer and overall the knowledge of those scholars from the past.

Inspiration is the answer to Emerson’s question. The “right” use of a book is when it is used to inspire the reader. However, sometimes a book is abused, and “the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege” (57). The privilege that the reader gives up is the ability to think beyond the book’s content, limiting his reach of potential. The reader acts as a machine in that it intakes material, and outputs the material as a previously designed product. It is a tool of the creator. A machine cannot invent or alter unless it is programmed to do so, causing creativity to find an end. A machine’s only potential is instilled in the man that created it. The machine is still essential to the creator, but is not of equal intellect. A man can become a machine and a book the creator when the man is only able to take in the content of a book, and out put the very same previously acquired information inlayed in the text.

However, Emerson does not discount the importance of books that pertain to gaining knowledge, and that cannot be expanded upon or discredited. “There is a portion of reading quite indispensible to a wise man. History and exact science [a scholar] must learn by laborious reading . . . But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create” (61). Emerson is aware that not every book or source of information is allowing of creativity, and that it is important for the scholar to comprehend such knowledge, submitting to the author’s truth. Although, it is better for a scholar if there are books of the same subject matter that can better assist creativity because they aim to inspire.

Emerson describes the nature of a scholar as an “always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, – so entire, so boundless” (57-58). A scholar uses the books to find their motivation that will bring them round and round to their next inspiration. There are no ends to the theories that one can uncover from a book if it is well used.

Additionally, Emerson aims to encourage scholars to not narrow theirs minds to branching out in one direction, but in all directions. If a reader objects to a theory, the better way to understand their opinion is to examine all angles of the situation. In Emerson’s essay Circles he encourages the scholarly thinker to think of him as an experimenter. “I unsettle all things. No facts to me are sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back” (180). A scholarly thinker must be open to all thoughts and remain non-judgmental even if faced with a confrontation of beliefs. A scholar will take an unfamiliar position to seek and experiment to gain unique knowledge and perspective. Most importantly, the scholar does this freely with no alliance to any “Past” influence. The capitalized “Past” that Emerson refers to in his essay is not his own past, but directly relates to books in the form of the “mind of the past.” Meaning that a scholar is free to explore without the intimidating influence of the books they have read.

Emerson uses metaphor about becoming a satellite to further aid his warning to the reader. He implies that the “attraction” and acceptance of a book’s content can often be so alluring that it can halt a scholar on their path to new ideas. A scholar becomes the satellite for the book to relay it’s code to, and have it reverberated to other locations, or other satellites stuck in the same gravitational pull. In situations like this, a scholar is pulled from their own place of power and position, and turned into a rotating worshiper of the book, a man not thinking. The similar imagery can be found in the phrase “broken record” in which the same thing is said over and over again. On a broken record there is an end caused by a deficiency on the vinyl, and this never allows the spindle a way to expand outward to new music because it is stuck.

Again, it is important to maintain that Emerson does not intend to devalue the importance of books. He believes that they are for the “scholar’s idle times” (60). Referring to the times in a scholar’s study when the new ideas cease, and there is a struggle to maintain and nourish the creativity. Emerson relates books to that of a lamp casting light in rays that can aid in spotlighting new directions of inspiration. He insists that books can help “guide [a scholar’s] steps East again, where the dawn is,” (60) the dawn of new creation. Additionally, a reader will likely stumble upon the works of a “Past” mind, and share interests and thoughts. A scholar will establish what Emerson refers to a “preestablished harmony” (60) so that they may align themselves to inspire generations of scholars to come.

The last part of the passage focuses on that of what Emerson referrers to as an “active soul.” The opposite of active would be dormant or un-awakened, and soul referring to a type of divine power that can take a scholar anywhere whether physically or mentally. In an essay written by Stephen E. Whicher entitled Emerson’s Tragic Sense he explains Emerson’s excitement at the idea of an active soul when The American Scholar was written. “His imagination had kindled to a blaze at the thought of the divine power latent in the soul. Give way to it, let it act, and the conversation of the world will follow” (665).  This course of thinking aligns itself with Emerson’s theory of the thinking man recognizing the power within him to not just hear, but to understand the truth behind words. Emerson describes the active soul as acknowledging absolute truth, and how it can lead to creation to be shared with the world of scholars, further implying that it is genius. Books are the genius of the past, and the genius of the future creates (59).

Emerson’s three impulses of the mind that embody an American Scholar; nature, books and action are all interrelated through out his essay. A Scholar cannot have one without the other. While nature was not greatly addressed, Emerson believed that all three impulses move in a fluid progression towards the other. “When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when the thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, – he has always the resource to live” (62-63). Emerson’s plea to the Scholar is to not read books and halt on the subject, he expects for them to guide a reader on to great ideas, and not only great ideas, but also great experience – to great action.


1. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Joel Porte, and Saundra Morris. Emerson’s prose and   poetry:authoritative texts, contexts, criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

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