Ralph Waldo Emerson and the ‘Mind on Fire’

I look to Ralph Waldo Emerson as a guiding star and a kindred spirit. Although nearly 200 years separate our existence, I feel strongly connected to the man and his teachings. I recently read Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson. I loved this biography. Emerson could not stop filling his mind with ideas. He chased them throughout his life. His mind was truly on fire. 

Emerson is one of the greatest thinkers America has ever produced. He read constantly and wrote just as often. He left more than 200 personal notebooks, which contained his notes on all subjects that interested him.

It may be pretentious of me to find similarities with a man, whom many consider one of the all-time great thinkers, but for me, Emerson embodies what I would hope to become – a great reader, writer, thinker, and teacher. His reading, writing, and lecturing lead to some of the most profound insights into what it means to be a human. The essays he published helped influence a wave of new thinkers. Among his followers were Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

In 2020, my goal is to read all of Emerson’s essays. They were widely read in Emerson’s day and I want to acquaint myself with his timeless teachings.

Below are my takeaways from The Mind on Fire. These ideas sparked something within me that left me inspired. I hope they do the same for you.

Collect Sentences

Emerson was a champion of writing sentences. In his essays, he focused on the sentence. Words needed to mean something, and the sentence provided words the truest form of expression. To find words for his sentences he carefully recorded the thoughts and ideas which came to his mind. He was careful to not judge any of the thoughts – letting them flow naturally onto the page. As mentioned above, Emerson filled volumes of notebooks full of ideas.

Idea Collector

Emerson wasn’t only capturing well-thought-out conclusions. Instead, anything that floated to the top of his mind was carefully recorded and indexed. For years this is the approach that he took. I believe this played into his creativity and his ability to write sentences

Indexing and Organizing

Not only did Emerson have a typical index – where topics are listed and references to what he had written about those topics could be found. But he also had indexes focused solely on one topic. For example, he had an index for biographies, which he listed 839 individuals whose work interested Emerson. In the index, he had references to his notes in which he quoted, discussed, or talked about these individuals. 

The Mind on Fire frequently talks about how Emerson had indexes of indexes. Emerson was a master of organizing the knowledge he found. Richardson, the author of the biography, says that the work of his indexes would’ve taken months, maybe even years to create. But all that effort helped him organize his thoughts in a way that not many individuals have ever accomplished.

I take a lot of notes. My wife can attest to the numerous amounts of notebooks I have, and the countless scribbled notes I leave around the house. I’ve never found a good system of organizing my notes and it has left me frustrated. Emerson provides an example of the diligence needed to maintain great notes. He inspired me to implement better indexing, so I can easily find what I’ve written and thought about!

Emerson’s Life Through Books

Another fascinating idea from this book is that the biography itself is organized chronologically by the books which Emerson was reading. Emerson had a copious amount of notes about every book he read and what he was reading. Many periods of his life were explained by what he was reading and writing about.

I have always been a list maker and even on this website, I have a running list of the books I’m reading organized by month and also in alphabetical order. Not published on my website, I have more details about the books I’ve read such as page length, date finished and a rating.

Could your life be told through the books you are reading? I believe mine can. I can look at the books I’ve read and know what I was thinking about at the time.

This was an amazing book. I envy the life Emerson was able to live. He read, wrote, and thought constantly. I recommend this book to everyone! You can pick up the book at Amazon here.

Write to me: sam@samuelpedro.com

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