Thoreau hoed beans that first summer, working seven hours a day, for profit of $8.71. That doesn’t sound like much, but keep two things in mind: first, the money went farther in the 1840s, and second, this was actually more profitable than his writing was at that point. I’m not aware that he’d made any money on his writing thus far, and he was about to lose considerable money on the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Being a writer, Henry looked for metaphors. After talking about cultivating beans, he listed the virtues he wanted to cultivate: “sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like…” Continue reading →
As much as I admire Thoreau, I don’t always agree with him. That’s OK. It’s been said that if two people agree on everything, only one is doing the thinking. Today the topic is friendship and physical space, and I think Henry’s ideas (quoted from the “Solitude” chapter of Walden) don’t make a lot of sense:
“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them… if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.” Continue reading →
“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.”
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 →
“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 →
“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 →