Reading Reflections: The Great Voices of Time

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“We look over with a sigh the monumental libraries … The inspection of the catalgoue brings me continually back to the few standard writers who are on every private shelf; and to these it can only afford only the most slight and casual additions. The crowds and centuries of books are only commentary and elucidation, echoes and weakeners of these few great voices of Time.”

“I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was; he shuts the book a richer man. I would never willingly read any others than such.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have often felt this way. I sometimes find myself panicking on how relatively few books I’ll read in my lifetime. Just do the math: if I read ten a month, that’s 120 a year, times another fifty or sixty years. It’s a very small number when put in that perspective.

But really, I do not need to read every book. Emerson’s reminder is comforting to me for that reason. And I love shutting a book and finding myself a richer person. While I sometimes read lighter fare or read quickly, I often still find myself a bit changed by having read the book. In some way, the books I choose give me satisfaction and strength.

Some of the great voices of time that I’ve read: Homer (I do need to reread him again), Shakespeare (I often seeing his familiar story arcs in later works), Charles Dickens’ , Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.So many of the poets I’ve been revisiting this month for poetry month. Poets just do such a great job of capturing emotion and changing me in a short space.

Which authors and/or works are on your private shelf (an imaginary shelf is fine)? Which voices are “the great voices of time” for you?

Reading Reflections is an occasional feature in which I comment on an article or essay about reading. (I haven’t posted one for more than a year, but there is no reason I cannot begin again, right?)

The above quotes are from an essay called “Books” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted on pages 13-14 and 15, respectively, of Reading in Bed, edited by Steven Gilbar.



Reviewed on April 8, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Erm, I’m not sure how I feel about ‘spermatic,’ as a word or a concept! Also, ten books a month ends up at 1200 per decade, which I don’t think is a small number: so much room for play in there.

    But to get to the point of your post, I find myself enriched by so many authors, both old and new, it’s hard to decide on a short list! But the most recent title would be The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner; I just finished it yesterday, and I can’t wait to post about it because it was so rich. I think you’d get quite a bit out of it too Rebecca!

    • Eva » lol yeah, I found that a bit strange of a description, but I do like the overall message! And thank you for putting the books read in perspective. by decade it sounds like a lot more! lol

      Thanks for the suggestion! Looking forward to your post. (I do always read them, even if I don’t always comment! I’ve been late to the blog reading lately…trying to keep up!)

      • Don’t worry about commenting or lack thereof! And I’m glad looking at it by the decade made you feel better. 😀

        For me, I don’t think it’d be possible to read only the great voices, as much as I love them. Because I don’t know ahead of time which authors will resonate with me, so I’m always trying new ones to see if they have the magic touch. And even books that aren’t great can enrich my reading, if nothing else by broadening my knowledge of a certain ‘type’ of book (be it genre, or geographical, and time period, or whatever). At least, that’s what I tell myself when I finish another book and realise it wasn’t a five-star one!

        As you can tell, I’ve been thinking more about this (especially since I just recently did a post wondering what my criterion for abandoning a book should be), so I suspect I’ll be back to comment more later!

        • Eva » I also don’t think I’d only be able to read the “great voices” — which is a little bit of a disagreement with the Emerson essay. He says some other things about how it’s not worth our time reading the others, and I don’t agree. I could be happy rereading my favorite books (what I call my “great voices”) the rest of my life, but it’s much more fun to find new books to resonate and enrich me. Good point that we don’t always know which books will resonate with us. That’s why it’s fun to read broadly too when possible. That said, I think it’s fun to see how the “great voices” are echoed in all those that come after, and literature for the most part seems to go back to the “great voices”, I think.

          I think even what I call light or genre reads still enrich me in some way. I personally don’t always find I enjoy them as much as the deeper classics, even though they are fun. I’ve just developed a taste for the older stuff and that’s really what I love.

          All that said, I do like the reminder Emerson gives that the tens of thousands of books in the world are not all worth reading — or at least necessary for You (in general) to read. Really, one’s own personal library can contain the ones that most resonate with You, and those “great voices” You adopt in your personal library (whether physically in your library or simply on a your personal list) can change You.

          • Oh I completely agree that I get something richer out of the deeper books, as much as I enjoy the occasional fluff. 😉 I’m just not sure that I equate deeper with older; after all, Dumas is an older author, but nothing I’ve read of his is particularly deep. Whereas, for instance, Luis Alberto Urrea is a contemporary author whose novels feel incredibly rich and profound and open to interpretation. I also don’t think that genre books are automatically lighter than ‘non-genre’ books; after all, Les Miserables and War and Peace are ‘genre,’ since they’re both historical fiction! hehe

            All in all, I think I agree far more with you than with Emerson, but that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve never really gotten along with him. And like you, I don’t find most classics to be a struggle; reading them just comes naturally!

          • Eva » I think you’ve caught my weakness in this! I haven’t read tons of contemporary fiction, so I forget to give them more benefit of the doubt here! Toni Morrison I’ve loved and found rich and profound, as with Adichie, and …. yes, there are plenty of contemporary authors that do the same. I feel you keep mentioning Urrea, sounds like I need to find his books sooner rather than later!

          • Urrea’s just springing to mind, because I loved Into the Beautiful North! 🙂 I definitely find that my contemporary reading is more hit-or-miss than my classics reading, and I’m sure it’s because time hasn’t weeded out the not-so-great authors. But I have found some magical ones (including Morrison and Adichie). I think I might do a list of authors I think match that criterion! It might take awhile, so in the meantime if you want any recommendations, just let me know!

          • Eva » ooo I love your lists posts! I’ll look forward to it. And somehow I’ll have to manage with all the books I have before me in the meantime…

  • I love that quote and what message it evokes. Gives you a lot to think about, doesn’t it?

    Part of my whole project was to get acquainted with the great voices, and I am so glad that I did. I could have wasted away reading my fantasy and science-fiction and never known what these greats had to tell me, you know? I am glad that I started this. I have discovered some new writers that I love, and I have reversed my opinions on ones I thought I hated (Cather and Dickens especially). I probably never would have gotten to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, or Crime and Punishment if hadn’t been for pushing myself, so I am glad I did.

    All that being said, I still enjoy taking a break and reading some fun things here or there. It gives me a break and I still get enjoyment our of reading a “fun” or “light” book. But my book “diet” will never be for pure fluff anymore.

    (And since you mention Homer…my readalong next month is The Iliad if you’re interested!)

    • Allie » ooooo now I really want to reread The Iliad! I still haven’t read The Aeneid, though, and I said I’d read that before my reread. I’m awful with readalongs in general. I just struggle to stay with a schedule.

      I do like a balance too — the “voices” and the “light” books. I think I’m meant for the classics, though, as Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment were not struggles for me. I love them!

    • Stefanie » The only ones I haven’t read much of are Atwood and Adrienne Rich. I should give Emerson and Montaigne more of a chance too. Thanks for sharing your shelf.

  • The inspection of the catalgoue brings me continually back to the few standard writers who are on every private shelf; and to these it can only afford only the most slight and casual additions.

    Emerson sounds here like he’s referring to a commonly agreed-upon canon of older works which his contemporaries would all recognize—in the context of the larger essay, do you think that’s true? It seems a tad bit strange given that he was involved in so much intellectual upheaval during his lifetime, and witnessed the birth of so many books we now consider “classics” but which back then were just contemporary lit—after all he was friends with Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Alcotts, contemporary of Melville, Dickens, the Brontes, Eliot, and so on. And he and his little circle of Unitarians were to some degree progressive: abolitionists, utopianists, etc. It makes his claim that modern writers can add only “commentary and elucidation, echoes and weakeners” to the Great Voices, a bit surprising. I wonder what his Great Voices list would have looked like, whether it would have included any of his contemporaries.

    Interpreted as you and Eva are doing, that each person has their own “canon” of meaningful works, I’m better able to get on board with this idea. I certainly relate to the experience of closing a book a different person than I was when I opened it.

    • Emily » I am extending his meaning. I felt I could only take a bit of what he said and run with it. I don’t agree that, like you suggest he may have meant, that only the old classics were the Great Voices. I believe the Great Voices, or the Canon if you will, is continually growing with each generation, and I wouldn’t agree with Emerson when he says “never read a book that’s not at least a year old.” I’m not sure what that accomplishes?

      Anyway, I think it’s satisfying to think of the books that have changed me. I like the reminder that I don’t have to read everything in order to be fulfilled through reading.

      • What that accomplishes – Clears out some of the chaff. Filters out the hype. Deadens the marketing. Burns off bright but ephemeral enthusiasms. The books that sounded kinda good are replaced by other books that sound kinda good. Only the ones that sounded really good survive to actually be read.

        In theory. I don’t do this. Neither did Emerson! As with lists, reading plans, challenges, and so on, it is all aspirational.

    • I was actually mulling over the idea of a ‘personal canon’ in a different context this morning as well! Simon linked to Jane Mount (, who creates paintings of bookshelves in which each book has been chosen by the client. Of course, I had to look at each one to see what different people were choosing! And it made me wonder, if I had the money to commission one (the largest goes up to 21 books for a cool $440), which titles I would select. A task fraught with implications but definitely fun!

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