I came across a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson recently that rang partly true. He is reputed to have said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so they have made me.”
I think of this ringing partly true in the sense that I read quite a few books, even in a given year, and part of the reason I began to write reviews on Goodreads, and this blog, is that otherwise, I do forget some of the books that I read. It also seems only partly true, because some of the books were not memorable. I don’t think they became a part of me. After all, not all the food I eat becomes part of me, or makes me!
At the same time, there are a number of books that I’ve read that I do remember. William Manchester’s biography of Churchill helped me understand the extraordinary greatness and courage of this man. The Lord of the Rings captured my imagination with the idea of ordinary people caught up in a great adventure. Francis Schaeffer was the first Christian writer to demonstrate that Christian thought had any relevance to the wider culture. H. Richard Niebuhr shaped my thinking about how we might engage that culture. Wendell Berry helped me think about technology and the land and community and what it means to have a sense of place and to love that place. The writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. helped me understand the urgency of the civil rights movement, particularly his message, “Why We Can’t Wait.” John R.W. Stott showed me the power of careful study that brings forth the message of scripture. Science writers like Lewis Thomas, Brian Greene, and Stephen J. Gould have instilled wonder as I’ve considered the world around me. All these have shaped and made me, at least my mental furniture.
Still, this quote leaves me wondering. Memory is a funny thing. There are memories not at conscious recall that arise–in a dream, with a smell, or a sight, or a random comment. Sometimes the contribution of some books to my mental life may be no more than a piece of a thought. Sometimes, books simply remind me of what I’ve already understood, like a recipe I’ve enjoyed before and enjoy again. Sometimes a fictional character will stand out in a singular way, and at other times remind me of those I’ve known.
Speaking of Emerson, it strikes me that I’ve read little of him or the other American transcendentalist tradition. From what I know, I probably would not be in entire sympathy. But Emerson has helped shape the American mind, even among those who do not remember reading him. Perhaps it is time to read some of him, perhaps to be made, or to see what I make of him.