Thoreau thought easy reading was bad for you. Did he miss the point? (Walden 72)

Thoreau was a book snob. No light reading for him. Here he goes after “easy reading”; below we’ll look at how weepy novels may have fostered a humanitarian revolution. Thoreau:

“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. …All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella — without any improvement, that I can see, in the pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.” Continue reading

Does it take a great writer to read a great writer? (Walden 71)

“The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

I’ve said this before in passing, but it’s worth repeating: The act of reading is a collaboration between author and reader. As a reader you bring your background knowledge, your assumptions and skill at interpretation, your curiosity and openness or lack of openness to the material. Continue reading

Writers are a natural and irresistible aristocracy (Walden 70)

More about books. Thoreau writes:

“Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”

All but a tiny minority of writers are little known and poorly paid — and this was certainly true of Henry during his lifetime. But it can be said that while kings and presidents come and go, in the long run it is ideas that change the world… and books are an efficient vehicle for ideas.

But can’t you hear a bit of self-congratulation here? OK, we writers may be broke and unknown, but never mind that — we’re a natural and irresistible aristocracy!

On the other hand, what’s the point of writing at all unless you think you can change the world just a little bit, even by giving one other person a good idea they hadn’t thought of before?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

The written word: the “art nearest to life itself” (Walden 69)

“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. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

Is the written word really “nearest to life itself” among the arts? What about music or the visual arts? What about drama, or dance, or cinema? It seems to me that there are many things near to life that are difficult to express in words, but which artists capture through other media. And such expressions don’t just translate into any language, but transcend language and require no translation at all.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

What happened to “the select language of literature”? (Walden 68)

“The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius written in those languages; for these were not written in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of literature. They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very materials on which they were written were waste paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap contemporary literature.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden Continue reading

Learning to read (Walden 67)

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden Continue reading

Are the classics really “the noblest recorded thoughts of man”? (Walden 66)

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…”

We have begun a brief chapter entitled “Reading,” and here we find that Thoreau, the man who said he’d never received worthy advice from older people in Concord, has considerably higher regard for certain old-timers from Greece and Rome. Continue reading