Summary and Analysis of The American Scholar
Paragraphs 10-20 - The Influence of the Past
Emerson devotes much of his discussion to the second influence on the mind, past learning — or, as he expresses it, the influence of books. In the first three paragraphs of this section, he emphasizes that books contain the learning of the past; however, he also says that these books pose a great danger. While it is true that books transform mere facts ("short-lived actions") into vital truths ("immortal thoughts"), every book is inevitably a partial truth, biased by society's standards when it was written. Each age must create its own books and find its own truths for itself.
Following this call for each age's creating truth, Emerson dwells on other dangers in books. They are dangerous, he says, because they tempt the scholar away from original thought. Excessive respect for the brilliance of past thinkers can discourage us from exploring new ideas and seeking individualized truths.
The worst example of slavish deference to past thinkers is the bookworm, a pedant who focuses all thought on trivial matters of scholarship and ignores large, universal ideas. This type of person becomes passive and uncreative, and is the antithesis of Emerson's ideal of the creative imagination: "Man hopes. Genius creates. To create, — to create, — is the proof of a divine presence." The non-creative bookworm is more spiritually distanced from God — and, therefore, from nature — than is the thinker of original thoughts.
But the genius, too, can suffer from the undue influence of books. Emerson's example of this kind of sufferer are the English dramatic poets, who, he says, have been "Shakespearized" for two hundred years: Rather than producing new, original texts and thoughts, they mimic Shakespeare's writings. Citing an Arabic proverb that says that one fig tree fertilizes another — just like one author can inspire another — Emerson suggests that true scholars should resort to books only when their own creative genius dries up or is blocked.
The last three paragraphs of this section refer to the pleasures and benefits of reading, provided it is done correctly. There is a unique pleasure in reading. Because ancient authors thought and felt as people do today, books defeat time, a phenomenon that Emerson argues is evidence of the transcendental oneness of human minds. Qualifying his previous insistence on individual creation, he says that he never underestimates the written word: Great thinkers are nourished by any knowledge, even that in books, although it takes a remarkably independent mind to read critically at all times. This kind of reading mines the essential vein of truth in an author while discarding the trivial or biased.
Emerson concedes that there are certain kinds of reading that are essential to an educated person: History, science, and similar subjects, which must be acquired by laborious reading and study. Foremost, schools must foster creativity rather than rely on rote memorization of texts: ". . . [schools] can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create."