Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reading for Life

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.


Stephen said...

Thank you for your ongoing appreciation of Thoreau. I remember being impressed (when I read Thoreau's journals) about how widely read he was, how literate in a cosmopolitan fashion -- quoting from Hindu texts.

I know readers like ourselves take it for granted, but it's extraordinary to know that our minds and lives can be formed and expanded through the writings of long-dead individuals..

R.T. said...

I recall reading something about Thoreau being quite the oddball even within his oddball society in Concord. (I can relate to him on that level!) His writing deserves attention, but too many modern readers have coopted Thoreau for agenda alien to Thoreau and his contexts. And I think skepticism is necessary. For example, I'm not sure Thoreau achieved self-improvement through reading; more essential real-world chores and challenges were more important, and his reliance upon Emerson and others betray his claims of self-reliance. I would also note within my annoying babbling here that some people do not have the leisure to read in order to improve themselves; many people are too busy surviving. In any case, as almost always, I enjoyed reading your posting.

Brian Joseph said...

Great post James.

I remember this party of walden well. It made an impression on me.

I think that read for self improvement fits in very well with Thoreau's general ethos.

I love the idea of reading widely and not being satisfied. I love the quote about literature being the most intimate and universal form of art.

James said...

Thanks for your reference to Thoreau's journal entries which provide further revelations as to the breadth of his thinking and reading. I am continually impressed with what I learn every day (a week) even after more than six decades of reading.

James said...

Thanks for your comments, especially regarding your enjoyment of my posting. However, I would like to respond to your call for skepticism. Regarding modern readers who co-opt Thoreau for their own agenda, I heartily agree. I try to avoid that by sticking to Thoreau's own words, although I will admit that as an individualist myself I tend to emphasize that aspect of Thoreau. And as a reader I emphasize Thoreau's comments on reading, but they are his comments.

With regard to Thoreau's relationship with Emerson, it was one where Emerson, who was fourteen years older than Thoreau, was his mentor. As Robert Richardson put it, "Emerson taught Thoreau that he could --indeed he must--shape his own life and pursue his own ends." (Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 18). Thoreau lived a life both of the mind, a Harvard graduate he was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian; most importantly he learned how to write which he did voluminously throughout the remainder of his life. He also developed the habit of reading on his own to expand the "roots" of learning that he had gained in college. He was also a naturalist and his life, especially after the two years spent at Walden pond were filled with his experience developing this aspect of his life. For details regarding these and other information about his life I would recommend both the Richardson biography cited above and a new (2017) biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. Better yet I would encourage you to read Thoreau's own Journals: 1837-1861, edited Damion Searls from New York Review Book Classics.

R.T. said...

Paraphrasing and amending a statement by VP Agnew, I apologize for coming across as "a nattering nabob of negativity." Write it up to the cognitive dissonance of a curmudgeonly crank. I will, however, take you up on your reading recommendations. It might not be too late to teach this old dog some new tricks. However, it's a long shot!

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I am not surprised that you were also impressed with this chapter of Walden. Reading widely is something that Thoreau did even before he completed his Harvard education. With the encouragement of his mentor and friend, Emerson, he struck out on his own leaving a wealth of books, poetry, essays, and his journal as his contribution to
American letters and to our benefit.

James said...

I appreciate your further reflections, but feel you were a bit harsh on yourself. I found your skepticism healthy and certainly far from "nattering", albeit perhaps a bit misguided.
One thing that I continue to learn as I read about Thoreau, and read his own works is that he was like Odysseus, a man of many-sides. The result being that he can be interpreted and presented in many different ways, especially as we view him two hundred years after his birth.

Ruth said...

I can't believe I forgot Thoreau's bday! My husband reminded me that we just drove through Thoreau, New Mexico today. (I'm on vacation, on my way home.) ''

Walden is on my personal cannon. "Reading" is one of my favorite chapters, of course. Such a great work.

James said...

Walden is surely a great work for many reasons including the inspirational chapter on reading. It is one of my personal favorites as well.

Mudpuddle said...

a fine piece on a too little read author; i've read most of his output with a great deal of pleasure and i found your blog to be accurate and concise... Thoreau, as you say, was multi-faceted in his studies and also in his relationships... his connection with William Channing (Channing of Concord, by Frederick T. McGill, publ. Rutgers univ. press) reveals T in some different aspects...

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. His friendships were fascinating, and the complexity of his own activities may help explain his too short life.

baili said...

Must be great writer and wonderful works of his

James said...

Thanks for your observation.