To the Libraries
February 3, 1852
I have been to the libraries (yesterday) at Cambridge and Boston . It would seem as if all things compelled us to originality . How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of likeminded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens ; they have left no memento of it there ; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, - so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, - and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I Have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price" to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Cliaucer, or tamixus. Greece and Asia Minor should henceforth bear Iliads and Odysseys as their trees lichens .
But no! if the works of nature are to any extent collected in the forest, the works of man are to a still greater extent collected in the city . I have sometimes imagined a library, i . e . a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city's square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses. Access to nature for original observation is secures:
by one ticket, by one kind of expense, but access to the works of your predecessors by a very different kind of expense. All things tend to cherish the originality of the original. Nature, at least, takes no pains to introduce him to the works of his predecessors, but only presents him with her own Opera Omnia.
Is it the lover of nature who has access to all that has been written on the subject of his favorite studies ?
Also found in The Journal: 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau, Damion Searls, ed. NYRB Classics, 2009. (pp 110-11)