Academic journal article Reader

Henry David Thoreau's Philosophy of Reading

Academic journal article Reader

Henry David Thoreau's Philosophy of Reading

Article excerpt

As a prolific dedicated writer, Thoreau was very concerned with the reading habits and attitudes of his contemporaries. He developed his own philosophy of reading in the "Reading" chapter of WalAen (1854) and in parts of his journal. Thoreau valued many books, particularly the classics, identified the major qualities of effective readers, and critiqued the shallow reading habits and attitudes of many of his fellow citizens. Moreover, he also discussed the importance of reading and books for the existence of healthy communities. I propose here to explicate and interpret Thoreau's complex ideas on reading and to identify the main elements of his philosophy of reading. I also suggest that in "Reading," Thoreau may have carefully described how he expected his own readers to approach Waiden and his other works. Thoreau's ideas on reading analyzed here represent his published thoughts on this topic expressed in the 1850s. Waiden was published in 1854, and his journal comments included here are primarily from 1858 and 1859.

Thoreau clearly valued books, viewing them as sources of intoxication similar to that provided by drinking wine (99).' He explains how he kept Homer's Iliad on his cabin table through the summer, even though he seldom read it because of the demands of manual labor early in his Waiden sojourn. He tells us that he read a few books of travel writing that summer, but he later felt ashamed of himself (99-100). He venerates the Greek and Roman classics of antiquity, and he seems to confine the concept of classics to the literature of this period, although he does value literature from other cultures and times. In the same spirit, he tells us that "the classics are the noblest recorded thoughts of man" (100). He also felt that important classics can impart important values to students. "The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek," he explains, "without danger of dissipation and luxuriousness" and he may "in some measure emulate their heroes" (100). He was partial to what he called heroic books, and he preferred that the classics be read in their original languages, even if they were translated into modern English: "The adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be" (100). He carefully points out that Alexander the Great carried The Iliad on his adventures in a "precious casket" (102), and he claims that "Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations" (102).

He also questions the value of modern translations of classic literature. What is lost in translation, he wonders? As readers of Homer, for example, "we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line" (100). The modern press, he claims, with all of its translations "has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity" (100). His purist notions that the literature of other countries should be read in their original languages seems elitist and impractical, but it was embedded in the curricular realities of his time. Greek and Latin were commonly studied even in lower schools; English Departments as we know them did not exist, and literature was often studied in the pertinent language classes. Homer would be read in Greek classes, Virgil in Latin classes and the Chanson de Roland in French classes. The academic field of American literature did not exist because our literature was still in its infancy. Later in the chapter, he takes a broader view and refers to English classics (106). Who would he consider an English classic author? We don't know the names of many of his favored authors, but he definitely mentions Shakespeare, and he also considers Dante to be a classic Italian author (104).

How should we read? What reading behaviors does he prescribe? He believed that we should read actively, athletically and, above all, not passively. "To read books in a true spirit," he tells us, is a "noble exercise" (101). …

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