Society and Solitude "Never Read Any Book That Is Not A Year Old"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Never Read Any Book That Is Not A Year Old"

Context: Early in his career, in The American Scholar, Emerson had voiced some of his views on books. There he wrote that he considered books "the best type of the influence of the past." He wrote also in that essay, "Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst." Years later, in the volume entitled Society and Solitude, he returned to the subject, to offer the fruits of his thinking over the years. He points out that already in his time there are many, many books–with the number increasing every year. In the face of a vast sea of reading material, he says that we must learn to read what is good and not waste our time on mediocrity, remarking that "'Tis an economy of time to read old and famed books," books which have stood the test of time and testify to the high quality of the minds which produced them. Emerson suggests such great writers as Pindar, Martial, Terence, Galen, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Erasmus, and More. He goes on to offer his advice on reading, ending with three rules, of which this quotation is one.

Be sure then to read no mean books. Shun the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, in the street and on the train. Dr. Johnson said, "he always went into stately shops;" and good travellers stop at the best hotels; for though they cost more, they do not cost much more, and there is the good company and the best information. In like manner the scholar knows that the famed books contain, first and last, the best thoughts and facts. Now and then, by rarest luck, in some foolish Grub Street is the gem we want. But in the best circles is the best information. If you should transfer the amount of your reading day by day from the newspaper to the standard authors–But who dare speak of such a thing?
The three practical rules, then, which I have to offer, are,–1. Never read any book that is not a year old. 2. Never read any but famed books. 3. Never read any but what you like; . . .