First We Read, Then We Write

…life is wasted in the necessary preparation of finding what is the true way, and we die just as we enter it. Emerson

I’ve been mulling over Robert Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write, his recent book on Emerson’s ideas on reading and writing about the books you’ve read. I read the book almost entirely because of its title, as reading and writing seem inextricably bound to me. When I read a book, I want to talk with someone about it, and if someone isn’t around I’ll try to write something, all the while mumbling to myself a word or two in order to make sense of it all.

However, the Richardson volume has only a few words about the relationship between reading and writing per se. One of them was Emerson’s belief that “…creative reading was at last inseparable for him from creative writing. But reading was just the means. The end—the purpose—was writing.”

I learned that Emerson apparently retained “nothing of all he read save that which seemed to him an echo or prophecy of his own state.” This has long been true for me although I’ve been hesitant to admit it, given the lofty standards of contemporary literary commentary. Now I know I’m in good company so it’s OK after all.

Emerson declared “The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.” And anticipating a remark Hemingway often made, Emerson reminds aspiring writers “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.”

From time to time I have compared the passages I’ve collected from a book with those of other readers and I’m always struck by how little overlap there is. Had I read Emerson more carefully, I would not be so surprised. “You have seen a sklilful man reading Plutarch. Well, that author is a thousand things to a thousand persons. Take that book into your own two hands and read your eyes out. You will never find there what the other finds.”

It was music to my ears to read Richardson’s discussion of Emerson’s advice on keeping a commonplace book. “What Emerson kept, and what he recommended enthusiastically to others, were what used to be called commonplace books, bland bound volumes in which one writes down vivid images, great descriptions, striking turns of phrase, ideas, high points from one’s life and reading—things one wants to remember and hold on to.”

It also reminded me of one my central concerns about the proliferation of e-book readers. While I am aware it is technically possible to highlight and save passages, as well as write with these devices, it is in fact a rather cumbersome task.

And when I see individuals reading with them, as I do more and more often these days, I have never observed a single one doing any of these things. I admit the same is true for the individuals I see reading printed books. I am fairly certain Emerson would feel quite disappointed each time he observed someone reading without a pen in hand.

Emerson referred to his commonplace books as his journals and considered them to be his savings bank. Some people save money, others save words and for Emerson, as for many commonplacers, these words draw every bit as much interest as their dollars do.

It was also music to my ears to read Patrick Kurp’s blog on commonplace books the other day. He begins with a passage by Brian Vickers that could very well have been written by Emerson, himself, “All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one’s own writing.”

Kurp also writes a bit the relationship of blogs to commonplace books and how they are in certain respects written in the manner of a cento or collage. The interested reader might want to read more at Anecdotal Evidence.