On Reading Like a Hawk

ralph waldo emerson Robert D. Richardson, Jr.’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) is one of my favorite biographies, and not just because I had the good fortune as an undergraduate to study with the author while he was writing the book. In his careful, moving study of Emerson’s life, Richardson charts the intellectual growth of one of America’s finest thinkers with a novelist’s eye for detail and a scholar’s knowledge of historical context, and he does it all in short, elliptical chapters that echo Emerson’s own aphoristic sentences.

One of my favorite subtexts of the biography is Richardson’s interest in Emerson’s reading and writing practices. Both of the following passages from the biography speak to Emerson’s omnivorous consumption of books and his methods for working through them:

Passage 1 (from Chapter 11: Pray Without Ceasing):

Coleridge notes that there are four kinds of readers: the hourglass, the sponge, the jelly bag, and the Golconda. In the first everything that runs in runs right out again. The sponge gives out all it took in, only a little dirtier. The jelly bag keeps only the refuse. The Golconda runs everything through a sieve and keeps only the diamonds. Emerson was not a systematic reader, but he had a genius for skimming and a comprehensive system for taking notes. Most of the time he was the pure Golconda, what miners call a high-grader, working his way rapidly through vast mines of material and pocketing the richest bits. (67)

Emerson, it appears, was digging into data before his time.

Passage 2 (from Chapter 28: A Theory of Animated Nature):

Goethe’s greatest gifts to Emerson were two. First was the master idea that education, development, self-consciousness, and self-expression are the purposes of life; second was the open, outward-facing working method of sympathetic appropriation and creative recombination of the world’s materials.

There is an important corollary to the axiom of appropriate appropriation. Along with Emerson’s freedom to take whatever struck him went the equally important obligation to ignore what did not. Emerson read widely and advised others to do so, but he was insistent about the dangers of being overwhelmed and overinfluenced by one’s reading. “Do not attempt to be a great reader,” he told a young Williams College student named Charles Woodbury. “Read for facts and not by the bookful.” He thought one should “learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time on them.” It is only worthwhile concentrating on what is excellent and for that “often a chapter is enough.” He encouraged browsing and skipping. “The glance reveals what the gaze obscures. Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you.”

What Emerson was really recommending was a form of speed-reading and the heightened attention that goes with speed-reading. When pressed by the young Woodbury, Emerson gave details:

“Learn how to tell from the beginnings of the chapters and from the glimpses of sentences whether you need to read them entirely through. So turn page after page, keeping the writer’s thoughts before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of. But recollect, you only read to start your own team.”

The last point is crucial. Reading was not an end in itself for Emerson. He read like a hawk sliding on the wind over a marsh, alert for what he could use. He read to nourish and to stimulate his own thought, and he carried this so far as to recommend that one stop reading if one finds oneself becoming engrossed. “Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought,” he told Woodbury. “Do not permit this. Stop if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph.” (173-174)

These passages speak, in surprising ways, to current debates about digital media. As is often the case, practices popularly understood to be effects of digital media have histories that predate the digital (David Crystal makes this point in Txting: The Gr8 Db8, as does Cathy Davidson in her blog post The Digital Nation Writes Back). Perhaps we might reclaim Emerson as the high priest of continuous partial attention, the ultimate historical rejoinder to the claims of Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle.

As Richardson points out, browsing and skimming were, for Emerson, not so much ways of avoiding the hard work of reading deeply as they were methodologies for jump-starting his own writing processes. It’s good practice to remember that there are many possible paths towards wisdom, and that some of them are more direct than others.

Update: Here is a related post by Chris Kelty: How to read a (good) book in one hour.

2 thoughts on “On Reading Like a Hawk

  1. Pingback: Digital Humanities Blog Carnival, Presidents Day 2011 | nicomachus.net

  2. david

    Coleridge’s fourfold division, by the way, is remarkable similar to a passage from the Ethics of the Father, which was composed sometime during the early third century CE. I would be very surprised if Coleridge independently came up with the same idea.

    Here’s the quote:

    Pirkei Avot, 5:15
    There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.


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