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 WaldenThoreau.
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”.
“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