Thoreau on Reading
"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered."
About a third of the way into the text of Walden one encounters a chapter simply titled "Reading". What does this have to do with Walden pond and Thoreau's small home beside it? Well, he answers that his "residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university". That this was important to Thoreau is emphasized by the opening sentence of the chapter: "With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike."
All men, and women too, would be like Thoreau, deliberate students and observers of the world. All this, and I count myself one with Thoreau, is for the purpose of improving oneself. That reading can be an important source of one's personal improvement is clear from the next paragraph where Thoreau quotes the poet Mir Camar Uddin Mast, "Being seated to run through the region of the spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books." To this Thoreau immediately adds that he "kept Homer's Iliad on my table through the summer". Now my choice would be The Odyssey, but Homer is certainly a great choice for a small library in a little hut by a pond surrounded by the fresh beauty of Nature.
Thoreau not only encourages one to read but makes a case for the classics. Whether it is Homer or Aeschylus (and for Thoreau this meant the original Greek, but I'm sure the fine translations available to us today will suffice for us moderns). He argues that the classics are "the noblest recorded thoughts of man . . . and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave."
He continues with a paean to reading that is nothing if not inspirational: "To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a novel exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. . . Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." Even Alexander, when carrying on his conquest of the Mediterranean world, carried the Iliad with him. As Thoreau goes on to say, "A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself."
Heady stuff this is, but readers all, and I can only base this on my personal experience, have their own stories of reading from an early age. Whether it was the stories of the Bible or Aesop, the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Jack Hawkins, or heavier tomes as one matures like those of Dickens or Dante; whatever path you choose in reading you learn and grow and eventually learn your letters as Thoreau would say. He adds the following encouragement, saying "I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a b abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives."
In other words, read widely and deeply and never be "satisfied". Like Thoreau,"aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book?" Of course Thoreau's best friends included the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellery Channing. While we can only read these great writers along with Thoreau himself, we can follow his advice by reading other great books of every age from classic to modern.
Let us celebrate the birthday of Henry David Thoreau by following both his example and his advice in reading books that will make us better persons. The result will bring us a greater appreciation of nature, move us closer to all persons in our lives, and open to us the miracles of the world around us.