What kind of world would we be living in today if people had taken Thoreau’s advice 150 years ago?
“To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater than the nobleman’s. New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.” Continue reading →
“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are, indeed, so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Technology has enabled an expansion of continuing education in ways that Henry couldn’t even imagine. But what I find interesting here is something that he doesn’t draw attention to, probably because to him it’s so obvious, and in one way or another he’s been talking about it throughout the book: notice that he sees education not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. What else would you do if you had leisure in your old age but keep studying and learning?
This attitude is at odds with our growing perception of education as being strictly job training. Everyone wants the next generation to be qualified for good jobs and to be able to provide for their families. But there’s a world of difference in saying, “I want them to get an education so they can get a good job,” and “I want them to get good jobs that provide the time and resources to continue their education.” Not only is the order of priority different in these two sentences, but “good job” and “education” take on different meanings as well.
“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!” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Is this true of you? What was the book?
As you might guess, Walden has been an influential book for me, though I don’t think I was ready for it when I first read portions of it in college. Because it isn’t just about the book. The book has to find you at the right time in your life. Thoreau writes about this in his journal:
“A man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally, as animals conceive at certain seasons their kind only. We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.”
At first we thought it was only a bird chirping. I started the car and pulled away from the curb. The sound followed us down the street, insistently. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! My wife and I looked this way and that, but saw no bird. It followed us four blocks through our neighborhood.
“Stop the car!” my wife said suddenly. She still saw nothing, but it had dawned on her that the voice wasn’t following the car—it was trapped inside it. Continue reading →
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 →
“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 →
“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?