Marginalia

A colleague I respect very much died a few weeks ago. He taught history. We were friendly but never close. We rarely found ourselves in the same place at the same time. I never made an effort to correct that. I should have.

He loved books and the way books carry ideas from one person to another across time, across space. He loved books as physical things and wrote in the margins of the books he was digesting.

Before he died, he left a few books from his collection to my library. I am reading one of his those books now because I want to enjoy something that he enjoyed and want to benefit from the notes he left behind.

I am reading Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a personal favorite of mine, though I sometime find it difficult to explain why. My daughter, Emersey, takes her name from Emerson. Emerson was the subject of the first lecture I ever gave. I was a senior in high school.

Emerson is difficult. I struggle with him a lot. Sometimes he writes in oversimplistic aphorisms. At other times, he relishes long, overly florid abstractions that do not connect to reality. He is optimistic but often lapses into outright manic idealism. His philosophical work with Plato, Kant and Hume is beyond my grasp. His religious ideals are just plain silly.

And yet, I am drawn to Emerson. I keep pressing my mind against his prose, believing there is something profoundly rewarding at work in there. Emerson celebrates direct experience. He requires scholarship to have a purpose. He sees poetry and art as a vehicle of transcendence. He understands that religious salvation is about the here and now, rather than the hereafter.

We are kindred spirits, though we do not yet understand one another very well. I keep working with him, and he, I believe, with me.

We are both prone to extremes. We both struggle with ideas as a necessary precondition for experience. We both find refuge in nature but believe our times are moving toward an extraordinary manifestation of greatness. We are patriots in that we believe the genius of our country is in finding and feeding the spirit of creativity and innovation. Emerson wrote during the ascendancy of this genius. I am uncertain if I am writing closer toward it apex or if that spirit has crested and now makes it slow descent.

Emerson wrestled with the ancients — Plato, Jesus, Socrates.

Emerson speaks to the 21st century. I am not yet sure what he is saying.

All of this sits in my mind as I read through the pages that my now gone colleague also read. I see the lines that he underscored and the words scribbled in the margins. He read this book mostly as an attempt to tie earlier influences to Emerson’s later works. He notes passages from journals that correspond to later essays. His notes are not profound. They are thin and few. They stop 105 pages in.

I want to ask why he stopped making notes there. Did he not finish beyond that point? Did he stop making the connections solid with notation? Later this evening, I will have read past the point where he stopped keeping notes. I will keep going, enjoying this one last connection we share to a thinker we both admire. It is enjoyable to hold this book he held and consider the value of things he thought worth noting. I will keep going and I will want to ask him, why this note? Why not this?

I will want to ask him why he thinks Emerson matters and what we should be taking from him that can be a benefit to everyone else.

But I can’t ask these questions. It is one way conversation. I have his book, scratched partway through with marginalia. It is insubstantial, not enough. I am on my own to explore this life that matters, for some reason, to both of us. I wish I could explain better why I feel such a responsibility to work with Emerson and why it is a comfort to know that, at least for a little while, I had a companion traveling the same road.

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