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.

3 replies
  1. Jase says:

    Very interesting, thank you for the book recommendation. I have the biography of William James already by Richardson, although I confess to not finishing it yet. William James was a very interesting fellow. I don’t know if you ever read Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum, which was a very interesting take on the involvement of William James in the Society for Psychical Research, among other things.

    By the way, I really appreciate your appearances on the Tech Night Owl Live, which is where I first heard of you. Take care.

    • kirk says:

      Richardson’s bio of James is wonderful, as are his Emerson and Thoreau. I have read Ghost Hunters, and it’s a “fun” book that shows how someone who was otherwise very rational (James) could have gone in such an odd direction. James, however taken he was by such things as spiritualism, never seemed to be totally convinced, though, and at the end of his life dropped those ideas.

      I wish Richardson would write a bio of Henry James, but I guess having the “big three” that he wrote about is more than enough.

  2. Steve W says:

    “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”
    Jean-Paul Sartre


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