The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Distinguish between a "scholar" and "bookworm" according to Emerson.  

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Emerson refers to the scholar as the "Man Thinking" as opposed to the bookworm. The Man Thinking derives his knowledge from robust engagement with many facets of life. These include a healthy interaction with nature, the practice of direct observation, and the acknowledgement of the experience of what is going on around him—as well as the constant inquiry into the promptings of his own soul. The act of reading is therefore only one part of a larger picture.

A bookworm, in contrast, finds his knowledge third-hand through books and borrows the wisdom of other people without questioning it or lining it up against his experience or conscience: in other words, without weighing its value against his own ideas. A bookworm's education is wholly derivative, and he does not learn to think for himself.

Emerson advises the red-blooded American scholar not to be like his effete European counterparts who is always looking to find guidance in books and tradition instead of experiencing life directly. Emerson states that the true scholar must live vigorously:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. . . . The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

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Books are, to be sure, an important part of a scholar's training according to Emerson. But a "bookworm," as he puts it, is someone who places too much stock in the writings of the past, someone constrained to stay within the ideas and the literary conventions found within canonical books. This, according to Emerson, is an unfortunate and all-too-common phenomenon among the intellectuals of his day:

Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence. The literature of every nation bear me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now for two hundred years.

The point was not that nobody should read the classics, or that Shakespeare was not worthy of scholarly attention. Emerson was arguing that American intellectuals should forge their own way intellectually. The "American Scholar" had to be what Emerson called a "man thinking," which he saw as a creative act rather than one that should be overly emulative of European or past writers and intellectuals. Inspiration should be drawn from nature and within one's self rather than solely from the minds of dead authors. A true scholar would be creative, not simply reproducing work based on old ideas.

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