Two months ago now, just at that moment of the deep dive into true summer, I went out and bought a fat book to celebrate the season. It was about Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great philosopher and Transcendentalist, and it had a wonderful title: “Emerson: The Mind on Fire: it was called.. I remember that there was a wild cloudburst as I drove to the bookstore, found this volume and forked over the full $35 for this book. The price seemed worth it to me though; I think that for me it symbolized these ten delicious weeks of school’s-out freedom.
And it certainly started out in lively enough fashion, recounting how a year after his first wife died at age 20, the grief-stricken young Emerson has her body disinterred so he could gaze once more upon her face.
Talk about your sensational opening chapters!
But as I have continued reading, I have been sorry to find the rest of the book to be as dry as toast, dealing more with the influences playing upon the man, what he must have been reading when he wrote this or that – in short, the kind of stuff that scholars build careers arguing over.
As a result I’m still on page 68. Just sixty-eight pages for my $35! What was I thinking?
Maybe I was drawn to it not just because of my fondness for this man but also because of how I passed so many summer days as an adolescent: When swimming and field sports were done for the day, I read.
Of these young summers I remember chiefly this: The shady porch of a simple house built my grandparents in 1920. A living room furnished with wicker and ignored ever since.
I close my eyes and see more still: The floorboards by the windows washed bare of varnish by winter sun and the spill of summer rains. Two rugs, faded to grey and as thin as Kleenex. The lumpy cushions on that wicker couch and me stretched out on them, reading and reading.
I carried a battered dictionary everywhere then, to look up unknown words. I still have a list of the ones I wrote down at 13. When I say them aloud now I see a girl in an oversized shirt and cut-offs, barefoot, and deeply absorbed.
I kept a notebook then too, of all the quotes that moved or inspired me, which I own still and have just pulled down from the shelf. And surprisingly enough, here are the words of Mr. Emerson himself, copied so long ago. I read them again now:
He said, “You shall have joy, or you shall have power…. You shall not have both.”
He said, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous.” I love that one.
He said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else.”
And finally he said this, as if he were sitting right here beside me and clapping shut every book in sight:
“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
All right, Mr. Emerson, here is what I know:
I know that my time is my own, to savor or to waste.
I know that many fat books await me if I but make time to read them.
And I know that sweet nostalgia notwithstanding, this summer, the summer of Right Now, beats any summer I could hope to disinter from memory’s dusty vaults.