“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.
Does it take a great writer to fully read another great writer? I’m not convinced that’s the case. Great writers tend to have their own strongly held vision of the world and may not fully appreciate another writer’s strong vision, especially if it clashes with their own. I recently re-read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a tale of love and wealth set in the Roaring ’20s — a book that has held up as a great work of fiction. But would Thoreau, with his vision of wealth and society, have been a good judge of its merits?
I think Henry sometimes thought too highly of the great poets. He lived in an era of heroic ideals. Today we’ve probably all read too many warts-and-all biographies to think of any “great” person as a higher form of humanity. Usually they’re just people with really sharp insight into one aspect of human experience, or one astonishing area of talent, and they can be surprisingly ordinary in other aspects of their lives.
The poet John G. Neihardt (1881-1973), who also wrote a book review column for many years, said that whenever he re-read a book he found that it had changed — either the book had grown or it had diminished. What he meant, of course, was that he had grown as a reader. He was better able to see both a book’s qualities and its shortcomings.
So that’s another way to look at Thoreau’s words above. We all have our faults and limitations, and maybe that means that, just as none of us except an idealized (and probably imaginary) Great Poet can write a perfect book, none of us can read one perfectly either.
(About “A Year in Walden”)