To Read True Books in a True Spirit

Although I agreed with much of what Thoreau had to say in this section, surprisingly, I also found much that I disagreed with. As an ex-English teacher and a writer of a literary weblog, I obviously agreed with much of what Thoreau had to say about the importance of books. What I tended to disagree with was his attitude towards what we should be reading.

I tended to agree with Thoreau that truth is immortal and that we have much to learn from philosophers and religious writers from different periods of time:

…in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident. The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed. That time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present, nor future.

We certainly have much to learn from earlier writers, much that even Thoreau was unable to read. For instance, the Tao de Ching seems as relevant today as it was the day it was written. Classic works have become classic because they still reveal truths about the human condition.

I also agree that to read “true” books well is a noble exercise:

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.

Having tried to teach literature for years I can certainly attest to the fact that reading “serious” literature is not easy. It is a skill that is acquired by practice. The more serious literature you read, the easier it is to read, though they must always be read with consciousness.

The corollary of this is that serious books are one of the greatest of mankind’s treasures:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

While I may question whether anyone belongs to an “aristocracy,” I would agree that books belong on the shelves of every home. And whether people are aware of it or not, their lives are influenced by past literature.

Where I disagree with Thoreau, though, is that the classics must be read in their own language. If this were true, it would be impossible for any one person to have read Japanese, Chinese, and Indian religious classics, much less Greek and Roman classics.

Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race; for it is remarkable that no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue, unless our civilization itself may be regarded as such a transcript.

Thoreau continues his elitist argument suggesting that works of great poets can only truly be read by other great poets:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

Since it’s unlikely that most of us are ever going to become “great poets” this would seem to make such works irrelevant, whereas the very opposite seems to be true. They allow us insights we might never be able to articulate on our own.

While I have personally chosen to limit most of my reading to serious works and avoided reading for entertainment, I disagree that there is anything wrong with this kind of reading, unless it displaces more serious reading:

For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks.

I doubt there is any more danger from reading such works than there is from eating deserts, unless, of course, one chooses to eat nothing but desert and eliminates healthier fare.

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.

Too much TV or too many romantic novels may well have a dulling effect, but the same may be said of virtually any overindulgence.

Still, it’s hard to deny Thoreau when he says:

A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of; -- and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the "Little Reading," and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.

I doubt that many people have made learning a life-long goal. Most people seem to believe in the “inoculation” theory of education, the one that says once you’ve had a course there’s no need to ever go back. For many people, the day they graduate from high school or from college is the last day of their “education,” though all will continue to learn from life’s experiences.

Thoreau seems to me to be right when he argues that there are valuable books awaiting to be discovered that can make dramatic changes in our life:

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.

Indeed, it is this hope, this belief that keeps me writing this blog, and in general this belief has been fulfilled as I have explored new works.

Another benefit that we certainly need in these times of international turmoil is the “liberalty” that Thoreau claims comes from reading widely:

Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let "our church" go by the board.

Though I’m not sure you can count on a wide background of reading creating a liberal person, I suspect it does have that effect on most readers.

To me, though, Thoreau saved his best idea for last:

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.

Life-long learning is essential to mankind, particularly in a world where there is so much to learn. In fact, one of my dreams for the internet is that it can become the school of the future where people who love to learn can do so from their home without cost. At its best, the internet could provide a support group for these learners.

Despite the obvious effort of some students to merely look for an easy way to complete their homework, the original goal of this site was to provide a place where adults, not necessarily students, could learn about writers they hadn’t met before. In addition, most of the sites I link to provide the same opportunity to gain a self-education. I go to these sites to read new ideas and to gain insights I haven’t had before.

First put down Nora Roberts...

I enjoy a good crime novel as much as anyone (In addition to Walden, I’m also reading John Sandford’s new book Mortal Prey). I know Thoreau would not approve. I promise, Henry, I won’t enjoy it, OK?

For if ever a teacher wished to find an advocate for the classics, she needs to look no further than chapter three of Walden.

This chapter entitled “Reading,” a most passionate plea for education, begins this advocacy with

With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers...In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal,
and need fear no change nor accident.

The reading of the classics, “I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer,” is essential to learn the truth. To benefit from the reading of Greek and Latin classic, he also recommended learning enough of the languages so that the books could be read in the original.

...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?

It follows that Thoreau would think the writer the most eloquent artist.

...the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

The consummate bibliophile therefore wrote

A written word is the choicest of relics...It is the work of art nearest to life itself...Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations...Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

The noble purpose for reading was not to be found in merely transacting business, but in reading books for which

...we have to stand on tiptoe to read, not for the rest of [our lives] vegetate and dissipate [our] faculties in what is called easy reading.

Perhaps for fear of being misunderstood, Thoreau suggests a consequence for novelists.

I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weathercocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty,and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks.

Wow! Thoreau would really be unhappy even with the New York Times best seller list.

What becomes of the readers of such dross?

The result [of easy reading] is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.

Surely Thoreau was not speaking of the readers of his contemporaries--Twain, Dickens, Poe, Eliot, Stowe, Cooper, Hawthorne, Hugo, and Irving.

Finding another reader of the classics in their original languages would be a problem, Thoreau admitted. Even college professors had hardly “mastered the difficulties.”

The point is carried further in that Thoreau seemed honestly concerned that without reading widely his compatriots didn’t know of the literature and bibles of other cultures. The thought crosses my mind that perhaps Americans would have a better understanding of the true teachings of Islam if we read the Koran. Technology, which Thoreau probably would have mixed feelings about, does provide us with so much more education than the average person acquired in the 19th century. Type in Koran on the Internet and learn about that religion for yourself. Devote less time to “Little Reading,...[which is] worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”

If readers are not yet hanging their heads in guilt over the novels stacked by the bedside, read this:

We are under-bred and low-lived and illiterate.

What will be the outcome of our reading good works?

...with wisdom we shall learn liberality.

I do like Thoreau’s way of advocating life long learning, a catch phrase of nearly every high school in America. Thoreau called them common schools.

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. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?

...the village should in some respects...be the patron of the fine arts.

Finally a purpose is found for the reading of the newspaper.

If we will read newspaper, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspaper in the world at once?...Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us, and we will see if they know anything....As the nobleman of cultivated
taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to his culture,--genius--learning--wit--books--paintings--statuary--music--philosophical instruments, and the like; so let the village do,--not stop short at a pedagogue, a parson, a sexton, a parish library, and three selectmen, because our pilgrim forefathers got through a cold winter once on a bleak rock with these.

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.

How can one argue with that?

Diane McCormick

What do you think?