Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes

Apropos of my post a few weeks ago, Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs, I’ve been meaning to post a fabulous literary story that I came across in a recent review in the New York Times Book Review:

In the early 1860s, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then a brash Harvard undergraduate, wrote an essay criticizing Plato, whose classifications of ideas he found ”loose and unscientific.” Holmes sent a copy of the essay to Emerson, whose books, he later said, had ”set me on fire.” He soon received in return a nugget of stern wisdom. ”I have read your piece,” Emerson replied. ”When you strike at a king you must kill him.”

In line with the idea of quotations and literary stories as “tools to think with,” this is advice that could well have been given to many companies that set out to compete with Microsoft, or now with Google. Of course, now and again, someone does kill the king. But the story forcefully gets across the stakes of crossing a giant. I also love the unexpected leap in the quote from Emerson. When my wife first read this paragraph aloud to me from the Sunday paper, it struck me like a bolt of joy! (Incidentally, see Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry for a wonderful analysis of the power of the leap, or the spark-gap if you prefer that metaphor, as a driver of poetry.)