Emerson delivered Address at the Opening of Concord Free Public Library at the opening and dedication of the new library on October 1, 1873. Concord had a long library history in which Emerson was involved, but this was the first public library. And it is still in existence today. Their website has a fantastic history with photos that include the program for the 1873 dedication. There is a photo of the library’s exterior soon after it opened and one of its interior. In the library’s special collections they have survey maps drawn by Thoreau and, available online, an Emerson Concordance. But back to Emerson’s address.
For all the things about Emerson that have made me grumpy of late, culminating with his “Woman” essay, it’s stuff like this that makes me love him. Emerson was a fellow bookworm. For all his talk sometimes of how books are secondary when it comes to the final purpose of life–and he reminds his listeners of that at the end of his address–he loved books and reading.
In his address he remarks on how important it is for a town like Concord to have a library and what a boon it is to the whole community:
we may all anticipate a sudden and lasting prosperity to this ancient town, in the benefit of a noble library, which adds by the beauty of the building, and its skilful arrangement, a quite new attraction, – making readers of those who are not readers, – making
scholars of those who only read newspapers or novels until now; and whilst it secures a new and needed culture to our citizens, offering a strong attraction to strangers who are seeking a country home to sit down here.
He understands the power “of books to make all towns equal,” that a library in Concord makes Concord as good as Rome or London because a library “has the best of each of those cities in itself.” He even suggests that if Robinson Crusoe had only had a shelf of books he could have pretty much done without Friday. This also hints, I think, that Emerson would have enjoyed answering the question, what ten books would you have with you one a desert island?
To those who may think that literature is merely an entertainment and not worthwhile because it doesn’t grind corn or plow a field, Emerson responds,
literature is the record of the best thoughts. Every attainment and discipline which increases a man’s acquaintance with the invisible world lifts his being. Everything that gives him a new perception of beauty multiplies his pure enjoyments. A river of thought is always running out of the invisible world into the mind of man. Shall not they who received the largest streams spread abroad the healing waters?
And as far as thoughts go, Emerson says, they cannot be contained, “Once brought into the world, it runs over the vessel which received it into all minds that love it.”
But books have still more value. In a library we can find diversion and relief from vexation, time to reflect, a bit of solitude. Books, as we all know, also make friends:
‘T is a tie between men to have been delighted with the same book. Every one of us is always in search of his friend, and when unexpectedly he finds a stranger enjoying the rare poet or thinker who is dear to his own solitude, – it is like finding a brother.
In books the past can also speak to us. And the influence of of what we read in books and the benefit it gives to ourselves and all humanity is inestimable.
So, “read proudly” says Emerson and
put the duty of being read invariably on the author. If he is not read, whose fault is it ? I am quite ready to be charmed, – but I shall not make believe I am charmed.
A little reader’s manifesto. Don’t read a book because you think you should, read a book because the author has convinced you to. Yet at the same time, if the author doesn’t cut it, don’t pretend that you are enjoying the book. I know sometimes I’ve felt obligated to read and like a book. But really, who am I benefiting in doing so? Certainly not myself.
This was a very enjoyable essay to read and is full of even more bookish quotes than I have included here. If you want to know more about Emerson’s involvement with the library or learn more about the Concord Free Public Library, the links will give you some fun things to look at.
Next week’s Emerson: The Fortune of the Republic