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The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time:
The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

""Do not trust to the cheering, for those very persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged."
-- Oliver Cromwell

You could be, at this very moment, watching television. That means you could have moving pictures and sound. Yet, you are holding this ancient medium made up of little immobile black marks on white paper. You probably had to walk outdoors to pick it up, and it doesn't even have a remote control; nevertheless, here it is in your hand, your newspaper. What does that say about you?

First, holding a newspaper is an act of defiance, for we were all told that the printed page was to be obsolete by the end of the last millennium. It also says about you have chosen to learn about what you care to learn about, in the order you choose, and at your own pace. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one, would be proud of you. I believe if he were alive today he would call television, not consistency, "the hobgoblin of little minds." A "hobgoblin" is "an ugly, mischievious elf," and television is an screeching little box of them.

What got me thinking about readers of newspapers was choosing my next selection for The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time. Great book Number Three is the essays of Emerson, and especially his "Self-Reliance" and "Character."

Emerson would have hated television, not only because it thinks for you, but because of the "mass" in "mass medium." Even when the programs are worthy of attention, they are surrounded by cheese-bait, or, as the wise Buddhist writer Robert Thurman calls television commercials, "thirty second meditations on dissatisfaction."

What would Emerson have said of modern media? Read what follows and you can guess: "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs." Television is the great engraver of names and customs. Conformity has a new ally, and it is the cultural equivalent of a nuclear power.

What does Emerson offer us with which to defend ourselves? He issues a call to character, stating, "The face which character wears is to me self-sufficingness. I revere the person who is riches."

And with that we get closer to something in the way of practical career advice. Emerson tells us, If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened. A sturdy lad who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.

We are an economy of specialists and sub-specialists, and it is no simple matter to walk away from them. Emerson would not be sympathetic: "Whoso would be [alive] must be a nonconformist." And he piles on with, "We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other. ...Our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born."

Emerson isn't big on telling his readers how to carry out his advice, but of course, there is irony enough in reading advice on being self-sufficing. But the reason that I believe Emerson's essays rate as one of The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time is that call up the dormant longing for something finer and grander in existence. I read his essay "Character" and find myself thinking of who I know who measures up. I smile, thinking, "Oh, there's himů and yes, yes, there's herů andů" before long I have created my own character pantheon. Emerson belittles us all, and yet we end up being larger for it.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

"The Five Greatest Advice Books of All Time" Series

  1. Letters From A Stoic
  2. Climbing the Blue Mountain
  3. The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  4. How to Win Friends and Influence People
  5. Bushido: The Way of the Samurai

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