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First We Read, Then We Write

Yesterday I finally picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out in February 2009. “First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process” is a thin volume (about 100 pages) packed with hard-won wisdom about reading and writing from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s books, essays, and journals. Dozens of great quotes are held together and given context by illuminating commentary from one of the great scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, Robert D. Richardson.

To be honest, I never gave Emerson much of a chance till now. I read a small collection of essays in high school that I liked well enough. But compared to his neighbor, the squatter of Walden Pond, who was always out climbing mountains, canoeing rivers, rambling, protesting illegal and immoral wars through acts of civil disobedience, Emerson’s adventures seemed too cerebral. “First We Read, Then We Write” has put Emerson squarely back on my to-read list, along with a couple of Richardson’s other books, “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” and “Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind”.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Emerson on reading:

“It is taking a great liberty with a man to offer to lend him a book. Each of the books I read invades me, displaces me.”

“A good head cannot read amiss. In every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides, hidden from all else, and unmistakably meant for his ear.”

On writing:

“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 those books.”

“A man must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.”

“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.”

On politics:

“Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs, the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general ends are somehow answered.”

On work:

“I lose days determining how hours should be spent.”

“The only path of escape known in all the worlds of God is performance. You must do your work before you shall be released.”


One comment on “First We Read, Then We Write

  1. I especially love the quote about lending books!

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