Thoreau Thursdays (25): Reading as a Form of Exercise

October 6, 2011

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Noble words, written books

“A written word is the choicest of relics.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau was a great advocate for books and reading.  But for “serious” reading, the classics, which he said are the “noblest recorded thoughts of man.”  He tasked himself to read well, which meant reading deliberately and with reflection.  For Thoreau, reading was mental exercise undertaken to elevate his thoughts.  Thus, for him, reading was a worthy investment of his time.

“I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I imagine that Thoreau would be appalled at the world today, when many people do not read at all and many of us read for pure pleasure and entertainment.  I read widely, including a lot of mysteries and detective novels, which can be likened to junk food, I suppose.  And like a junk-food diet, this type of reading is addicting.  That’s why so many writers of this genre produce books in series — they have a ready audience.

Thoreau admitted to reading a few less-serious books during his early days at Walden Pond, but dissipating his life like that shamed him:  “I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.”

I would do well to follow Thoreau’s model.  After all, a healthy mind might well need a healthy diet of the best in literature.


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