By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Reading’ is a chapter from Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. The book details Thoreau’s decision to leave behind modern civilisation and live a simple life in the woods in Massachusetts.
In ‘Reading’, Thoreau laments the fact that his fellow citizens of Concord in Massachusetts seem uninterested in reading the great works of classical literature, instead settling for ‘easy reading’ which provides little in the way of intellectual improvement. You can read Thoreau’s essay here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of his argument below.
Reading great literature makes us immortal, in a sense, because it is about the truth, and the truth is immortal. Reading puts us in touch with the minds of people who lived a long time ago. The best writing is superior to the best speech, because orators and speechmakers devise their words only to be heard, whereas writers wish their words to be understood down the ages. For this reason, it is best to learn ancient languages so we can read the classics in their original language, rather than a modern translation.
The influence of books extends beyond that of emperors or kings. When a man has attained material wealth, he turns to intellectual riches in order that he may become aware of the ultimate emptiness of his material possessions and the need to create an intellectual society that his children might benefit from.
Returning to the issue of translation, Thoreau goes so far as to argue that Homer, Virgil, and other classical writers have never truly been published in any modern language, because such translations are not ‘true’ Homer, Virgil, and so on, but inferior renditions. Similarly, most great poets have never truly been read, since it takes another great poet to read and truly understand the works of other great poets.
This is similar to Thoreau’s earlier distinction between hearing an orator make a speech and understanding what a writer has written. For Thoreau, most people reading great poets is similar to the majority of stargazers ‘reading’ the stars: only trained astronomers can truly comprehend what they see, whereas most people settle for superstitious astrology instead, as it’s all they can understand.
The problem, as Thoreau sees it, is that most people strive to read only one classical book, the Bible, and then they content themselves for the rest of their lives with easy reading, which is full of clichés and contains little genuine intellectual nourishment. As a result of reading such novels, readers lose their intellectual faculties.
Thoreau then turns specifically to the people of Concord, Massachusetts, the town where he himself has lived for many years. Many people do not read the ancient classics, and even a woodchopper who speaks French and English does more to sharpen his intellectual faculties than those Concord residents who settle for reading only English. But even if a stray Concord resident did read a work of classical literature in the original Greek or Latin, the problem is that they would struggle to find anyone else who had also read the classics in their original language, so they could not be able to talk to like-minded people about what they had read.
This is regrettable because Thoreau believes the classics have things to tell us – universal truths – which we would find edifying and pleasant to read. The problem is that most people, Thoreau himself included, will leave Plato on the shelf rather than attempting to read him. Thoreau urges his fellow residents of Concord to strive to educate adults as well as they educate infants, turning their town into one vast university, or a noble village.
The central thrust of Thoreau’s ‘Reading’ might be summarised as follows: reading the classics, especially those of the ancient world, can put us in touch with universal and timeless truths which allow us to transcend our brief, mortal existence. Reading these works of literature in their original ancient languages is best of all, because translations never fully capture the beauty and meaning of, say, Homer or Aeschylus in the original Greek.
Such reading is preferable to light or easy reading – which Thoreau likens to ‘gingerbread’ and which we, in our modern age, might compare to junk food – because it contains intellectual and moral profundity and helps us to become more fully educated people. But such reading cannot be undertaken in isolation: it is better to foster a community in which everyone is encouraged to read the classics, so that people have others they can discuss the work of the great poets with.
In this connection, a revealing moment in ‘Reading’ comes when Thoreau admits that he has left the Dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato on the shelf, unread. Although he often sounds as though he is chastising his fellow Concordians for their literary ignorance or lack of curiosity, in truth Thoreau is acknowledging the fact that he, too, has sometimes been guilty of neglecting the classics. His point is that he would be less inclined to do so if he knew he could then talk about the works of Plato with other people in his hometown. It is perhaps apt that he chooses a text called the Dialogues: what use of reading them if there is nobody with which to have a dialogue about them?
Curiously enough, in privileging writing over speech, Thoreau is advancing a position which is counter to the position held by Plato – or at least, Socrates, in the works of Plato – which viewed writing as the ‘pharmakon’ or poison, because writing, unlike speech, hid the author from the reader, causing the meaning of the message to go astray. We are all probably more likely to misconstrue something that’s written down and shorn of non-verbal clues, body language, intonation, facial expressions, and so on.
But Thoreau’s point is that speech, in being more direct and immediate than writing, is also more limited in its influence. Unless you’re there to hear the speaker utter their words, you are never going to be as affected by them. Writing, by contrast, contains the best that civilisation has to offer and provides a way of that greatness being transferred down the generations, so that someone in nineteenth-century America can read something penned by a poet almost three thousand years ago.
‘Reading’, as the title of Thoreau’s essay makes clear, is also about the importance of attending to that writing closely and sensitively. Great writing is no good if there is nobody around to read and appreciate it. And yet in order to appreciate and truly understand the greatest literature, we must sharpen our intellectual faculties – and most people are reluctant to do that, seeing light or easy reading as preferable.