Book Notes: First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson

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Robert Richardson is a brilliant man, and an excellent writer. He is the author of three biographies that will stand for decades as the essential works on the thinkers he explores: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. (These are three of the four American thinkers I appreciate most; I only wish he would write a biography about the fourth, Henry James.)

Richardson is especially attuned to the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might be considered America’s ur-philosopher. In this diminutive book, Richardson looks at Emerson’s writing, and uses him as an example for a style that some other writers may want to emulate. (I say “may”, because Emerson’s style is not for everyone, nor for all types of prose.) Using examples from Emerson’s essays and journals, Richardson gives suggestions about effective writing, but this is not a how-to book. It is more a brief overview (in only about 80 pages) of Emerson’s writing and thought.

This is an essential read for anyone who writes for a living, whether they appreciate Emerson or not. Understanding why Emerson’s writing works can help better appreciate many elements of writing in English. And, perhaps, it may help those who are unfamiliar with Emerson’s work discover his wonderful words and thoughts.