Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Reading


A recent reading of Walden by Henry David Thoreau has given me much to ponder. I will not attempt to encapsulate the entire work in a single blog entry. Instead, I may post several pieces on particular points that interested me.

Contained within Walden is the subpart titled “Reading”. I think that this segment is often overlooked, as it does not focus upon humanity’s relation to nature, a favorite point among those who enjoy discussing Thoreau.

In this section, Thoreau engages in a relatively strong, I would even describe it as scathing, attack upon folks for their reading habits. If the great American essayist were alive today, he would surely be labeled as the dreaded ”book snob”.

Thoreau decries spending ones life reading what he describes as “Little Things”.


He writes,

“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. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. 


From a personal point of view, but without engaging in the judgment of others, I am with Thoreau so far. I mostly try to avoid so-called easy reading. I do so mostly because I find such “light reading” to be boring.


Later, such easy reading, along with those who engage in it, are judged in harsher terms,

"We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.”


Personally, I feel that labeling folks who engage in an activity less seriously than I do as “feeble intellects” is not the best path to a comprehensive and balanced view of the world. Everyone finds substance in life in different places. If I am quick to judge an individual who engages in such reading, I may also be quick to overlook the fact that the person has developed artistic abilities that I have disused, or has developed other skills or virtues that I have neglected. For instance, a person who spends several hours a day listening to and studying classical music might be inclined to look down upon me as someone who is wasting time that could be spent exploring that particular art form. One needs to be very careful before being too critical concerning the intellectual and artistic pursuits of others. Everyone is different and exhibits varying strengths and weaknesses.



On the other hand, I find the above advice personally agreeable. As reading goes, it has been my lifelong, number one hobby. Thus, I look to books to challenge me. I want to mainly stick with “the best of literature,” and I wish to become acquainted with varying and diverse points of view as well as come to know both the wisdom and, I will add, folly contained in great books.


Thoreau spends several pages extolling the wisdom of the ages that can be discovered in books. He concludes that words can be life changing. They can open new vistas to us and make us better people. He believes that certain forms of wisdom are universal and, of course, can be accessed by reading great books.

The essayist goes on,

“It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. 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. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. “


There is a widely discussed intellectual kinship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson heavily influenced Thoreau and both shared many common views. On the subject of books and great authors, however, I find that, at least in this essay, Thoreau is less suspicious and cautious about assimilating the thoughts and opinions of great authors. My commentary on Emerson’s view of books in the American Scholar is here. In that work Emerson seems to be making the case that one should be very wary of the “life changing” aspects of books. He is highly critical of accepting the ideas of even great intellects.


In contrast, Thoreau gives a lot of credit here to history’s esteemed writers and thinkers. Thoreau is right on the money in his assessment that issues such as life, death, the origins of ourselves and the universe, etc. have been tackled by many who have gone before us. Even if one reads very skeptically, there is a treasure trove of insightful, useful and just plain fascinating observations to discover. For those who have only dipped a toe into the water of such deep reading, I join Thoreau in encouraging a very deep plunge.


Thoreau devotes many more words and pages to both the issue of “easy reading” as well as to extolling the virtues of great and enlightening books. This segment is but one scrumptious, albeit slightly bitter, dish included in the feast that is Walden. Those very curious about this segment can easily find it in the work’s table of contents and read it in isolation. However, it very nicely fits into and complements the remainder of this great work.

30 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

Agghhh, not the dreaded book snob.

Great post Brian. Very thought provoking, it had me thinking of my reading habits and what motivates me to read what I do.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

This is on my to-be-read list. Thanks for the review, now I have an idea of what to expect from this particular segment.

There's reading and there's light reading, both with their benefits and I'm not ashamed to say I've partaken of both. If I can take from a book just one thought, one thing that makes me look at life in a different way, I consider I have not wasted my time. I'm sure Thoreau would shake his head at my poor choices. Oh well...

Caroline said...

I do quite a bit of "easy reading", still, I do agree with him mostly and would call myself a bit of a snob.
I wonder wht he would think of today's "easy" entertainments . . .
I've not read all of Walden but always meat to get back to it. It's a fascinating book. I didn't remember the part on books at all.

Sharon Henning said...

I did not realize that Walden wrote so about books. I have to pretty much agree with him. I guess I'm more judgmental than you.

I guess where I'm coming from is that many people have catalogued me under that classification as "intellectual" as though that gave them some kind of excuse not to exercise their own minds.

I don't believe I'm any more intelligent than anyone else. But what I have done is chosen to develop my intellect to achieve higher level thinking skills primarily through reading quality literature. (Although I feel sure, classical music plays a role as well :)

It's like learning to run. Just about any able bodied person can train themselves to run twenty miles. Most of us don't because we aren't inclined to, but that doesn't mean those that do are simply "more athletic" than ourselves. They've chosen to excel in that area and we've chosen not to.

One other point: I think that it is crucial for all people, not people with certain aptitudes or vocations to read good books. It's encumbant on all to develop their mind to its fullest potential. People who do so aren't easily deceived or shallow and simply lead deeper, richer lives.

As you and Thoreau said, it's listening to the great minds throughout the ages.

As you might have guessed, you hit upon a nerve with me:)

I never read Walden and now I'm going to have to.

Thanks for a good review as always, Brian.

Suko said...

Excellent choice, Brian, to discuss Thoreau's "Reading" section! I read Walden many years ago, and should see if I still have my copy in the shelves somewhere. I'd head straight to the "Reading" section.

I think Thoreau's ideas stem very much from the times (1817-1862). Reading was a primary means of learning, and although that's still true today, there is something perhaps different and deeper about the way people learned in his day. Many were largely "home-schooled", and those who were fortunate enough to be literate possibly felt more accountable and responsible, as not everyone had educational opportunities; I can understand why Thoreau would stress "quality reading" with fervor.

JaneGS said...

Those New Englanders sure do like to tell other people how to live, don't they? :)

I agree that it is worthwhile to read great literature, but without sampling a variety of authors, especially those still living, how do you get to weigh in on what to add to the ancient canon?

Also, unlike Thoreau, I read for a variety of reasons--to educate myself, develop my mind, but also to understand the evolution of literature as well as pop culture and various genres.

While I don't claim to only read "great" writers, I really find I cannot read badly written stuff.

That was an interesting post--I've never had the fortitude to tackle Walden straight on, but rather have come at it with a small doses approach. Kudos to you for reading the whole thing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Though I do find them a little silly, I do like to read the opinions of others concerning what they think that others should read. Though one cannot take it too seriously, it is, in a way, fun to do.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Though I do not consider what I often read to be light, it does enormously depend on one's definition of light reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - As I alluded to, for whatever reason this segment is not all that famous. I think that what defines a snob is not what they read, but if they judge what others read too harshly.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I actually have often entertained thought very similar to yours when it relates to reading. I value books and quality reading so much. It is difficult for me to relate to folks who do not read quality things.

But then I think about people who have developed other skills that relate to the arts or intellect so much more then I have and I think that everyone cannot be so into everything worthwhile.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Very goods points. Times were different and I was thinking about his views in light of the modern world.

Of course many folks harbor Thoreau's views today.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed folks read for many reasons, though I think that I read mostly for reasons that Thoreau would approve, I keep coming back to the classical music analogy. One can only be 100% serious about so many things.


i did not find this too difficult. It involved a lot of descriptions about nature. If one is used to fast moving narratives they may find this one a little slow.

Lindsay said...

Thanks for a fascinating post that has made me think more deeply about my reading habits, Brian. I confess I don't know that much about this writer's views, so thank you for sharing some of the lines from the reading section of the book here.

I think at times I enjoy reading something light but for the most part I like to challenge myself at least a little. I enjoy both.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsey - It seems that most folks that I communicate with who read some of the more 'Serious Stuff" really like to mix it up. I tend not to with what I read, but I do spend plenty of time relaxing and doing what can be deemed frivolous things. Which if you thing about it is equivalent to light reading.

James said...

You have hit upon an aspect of Thoreau, one of many, that is a near to my heart as it appears to be to yours. You quote Thoreau saying "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!" Those of us who revere the reading life count ourselves among these men.
In the paragraph preceding that comment Thoreau claims to not have read Plato's Dialogues; his loss. In his favor he did read Homer and, better yet, he was close friends with Emerson and William Ellery Channing. Would that I had such friends, but I do through their books and reading their prose & poetry. I guess we all share that with Thoreau.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi james - Indeed we get to know so many through reading. I wonder if Thoreau ever did get around to reading Plato.

Gautam said...

The modern-day equivalent would probably be Harold Bloom, with his strong convictions on what good literature is, and his obsession with the canon. I do think, however, that if you are swift to condemn literature that doesn't speak directly to you, it might simply be because there is no overlap in the range of experiences that you have and that the text encapsulates - and that means that you miss a wonderful chance to broaden and enrich your horizons.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautem - I did think about Bloom when I read this. There are different levels however,. there is being open minded about a diverse set of works. Then there are the massive amount of popular literature that is derivative and no one is really reading for anything other then entertainment.

Harvee said...

I read mostly for entertainment these days, plus for information. Gone are the days when I want to read works that are too serious or classic. Had my fill of those in college/univ.

Suko said...

Brian, I did find my copy and I have it out on a small table. Hopefully, I will read it soon. Thanks for leading me to this again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi harvee - The thing is that for me, the entertainment is in the meaningful substance.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I am glad that you found your copy. If you read this or any oher part of Walden I would love it if you posted something, or if not at least stop by back here and share your thoughts.

Naida said...

I agree, words can be life changing. I do think a lot can be learned from books, both non-fiction and well as fiction. It all depends on the reader, it's such a personal thing.
That quote about easy reading is harsh. Like you say though, everyone is different.
Great post Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Lately I have been thinking about the life changing aspect of reading and how it can be fairly sudden but also gradual.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Excellent post and excellent quotes. Thanks! I like a variety of reading experiences. But, I think we need to encourage one another to read deeply and read difficult works. They are a slog at times, but you get to interact with the ideas of the ages. Awesome.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi -I used to experiance the dreaded slot. As the years have gone by, I think that my reading skills have improved as my curiosity towards things has been inhanced. I really enjoy just about everything that I read now.It really took work to get to this point however.

Suko said...

Brian, I finally finally finally read Reading. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking writing about reading, which could lead to all sorts of discussions.

I'll focus on but one small detail here which was revelatory to me. I had Walden out on a side table for several days before I read the Reading essay. I'd started to feel guilty that I had not yet sat down to read it. However, I soon felt better as I read; early in this section Thoreau states that his copy of Homer's Iliad was out on his table throughout the summer; he didn't have enough time to study it, due to "incessant labor" he needed to complete at home first. Even then, a heavy burden of house chores could interfere with reading!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Awesome that you are getting to reading this. It is such a common and age old problem. To much to do and so little time to read. As we see even Thoreau faced it!

Maria Behar said...

You know, I really like your approach of taking certain aspects of selected books, and writing a review on each, instead of doing one comprehensive review. This helps us who enjoy reading your blog to become better acquainted with the books you comment on. Besides, sometimes one review is not enough in order to present and discuss the riches enclosed within the pages of a particular book. Of course, doing reviews this way is much more appropriate for classics and more profound works.

Since Thoreau mentions light reading, I must confess that I do sometimes engage in it, and feel guilty about it. In my case, light reading usually consists of romance novels. Yes, they are my 'guilty reading pleasure'.... While I used to look down my nose, years ago, at women who read such books, everything changed when I fell in love for the first time... I'm even shocked to admit that I completely abandoned my reading of fantasy and science fiction, which --along with books on psychology -- had been my main reading fare up to then, and immersed myself in the world of romance! Lol.

Back in 2006, I first came across The Twilight Saga, and it was love at first sight! Since then, I've developed another reading addiction -- young adult fiction. What I enjoy most about this genre is that you won't come across profanity that often, nor will you find overly graphic sex scenes, both of which I detest.

I do want to return to reading 'weightier' books, and want to review them on my blog, which is, after all, eclectic in scope. So here's a New Year's resolution: this coming year, I will make every effort to read more challenging books, even if my current readers end up un-following my blog. I owe it to myself as a self-respecting intellectual to not spend so much time on reading that, although it does offer the benefits of escape from this BORING reality, does nothing to improve my mind, or enlighten my understanding.

On the other hand, perhaps something can be said for achieving some sort of balance. There are times when reaching for a light read is just what I want, while there are other times that I become totally engrossed in fascinating books on psychology, philosophy, or theology.

'Reform' is in the air, however, in 2014! I'm sure Thoreau would be very pleased!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I tend to think that there are so many comprehensive encapsulations of both the classics as well as popular works that I often cannot add much. I also think that really good and fun discussions of literature involve digging into particular points of a work, even relatively minor points.

I agree about balance. However I would say that many of the works that you cover on your site really do involve thoughtful and serious ideas, regardless of whether they are labeled as YA or not. I think that you are being a little too hard on yourself in this respect. I love reading your commentary even when you write about books that are not my cup of tea.

I do hope that in 2014 you expand your reading as you wish to but also keep enjoying it.