On Reading Emerson
“The best way to enjoy Emerson,” Alton Becker writes, “is to read him aloud, slowly. I suspect it may be impossible to read him fast.” I didn’t read Emerson aloud, but I did read Emerson this week. It was an experience unlike any of the reading I have done this summer.
One of my favorite words to mock in my head is the academic-praise word interesting. You know, when you ask a friend what they think of your new shoes, interesting isn’t a compliment. When you tell your colleague about the paper you’re working on, though, interesting is, I think, meant as a compliment. Interesting is to the academic what nice is to everyone else. Isn’t that interesting?
It is telling, though, that praise for academic work hinges on interest. This summer, I have read many things that I would call interesting, things that have given me new things to think about or new ways to think about them. But, I am being, perhaps, too harsh in my judgment, I would call precious few of those texts good. The ideas were interesting in many of them—but the texts were forgettable, unenjoyable.
Emerson writes: “Intellect and intellection signify to the common ear consideration of abstract truth…. Intellect separates the fact considered, from you, from all local and personal reference, and discerns it as if it existed for its own sake” (263). Ideas shorn from the world from which they sprang. Of course, that has its utility, but Emerson stands apart from many of the other writers I’ve read in the last few months by offering more than mere utility.
Emerson, Becker, Wayne Booth, and perhaps a few others have offered me a reading experience that was, in itself, valuable. Other texts left me feeling like I was enacting an analog version of ctrl+f. I read it because I needed the information; words were incidental. With writers like Emerson, though, there was more than information—there was good company. Slowing down with Emerson was savoring, not slogging.
This is one of those moments, all too typical in my graduate school experience, where I feel like I’ve missed the point. In seminars, people are always talking about the ideas, wrestling with the abstracted intellect. I have rarely had anything to say because my reflection on the reading experience—the qualities of the text and the way I felt it interacting with me as a reader—seemed wholly beside the point. Even in creative writing workshops, people would complain about language that called attention to itself—and those were the moments I wanted to celebrate. Those were the moments I was reading for.
So, it may not be very scholarly to report that, after a week of reading Emerson, I can say that I liked it. Scholarship isn’t about liking. But there’s something there that I want to continue to examine. What is happening in a text that people like? What goes into a text that people want to read? Is there a difference between the writer writing and the scholar writing?
We (that is, I, at least) don't read scholarship for pleasure. But what if we did? That is, what if scholarship were written to provide pleasure as well as information? Perhaps we have mistaken bitterness for complexity. Perhaps scholarship would reach the public more effectively if it were worth reading. And I make a careful distinction here between being worth knowing and being worth reading. For there is surely much of scholarship that is worth knowing but is hardly worth reading. Likewise, there is much that may be worth reading that isn’t really worth knowing.
In Emerson, then, I have found a mixture of that which is worth knowing and that which is worth reading. Is it just that he takes some time out to describe the night sky? I hope it’s more than that (if only because that doesn’t quite have the gravitas I’m hoping for). Then again, I sort of hope it is as simple as that: how much easier it would be to make our scholarship worth reading if all we had to do was look out the window and describe the breeze-tremors in the blades of grass or the bounding enthusiasm of the blue jay in between our data tables?