April 30, 2007
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Emerson on Bibliolatry

From The American Scholar, in a passage to which Susan Cheever alludes in American Bloomsbury .

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 these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Emerson is here unjust to people who undertake the hard and unglamorous toil that the fields of literature sometimes require. We need restorers of readings and glossaries and scholiasts: if the text is corrupt, we cannot go further.

But this is also a very important point: it is easy to worship the form of the book to the neglect of its spirit. This is especially true of the false opposition so often raised between books and computers. Barring an unusual debility, to say that, "I love books, I admire fine writing, but I could never read on a computer" is, quite literally, absurd.