Tammy Marshall, "Novel Thoughts"

Like many people, I’ve long known of Henry David Thoreau and his famous stay at Walden Pond, but until recently, I only knew the most famous quotes from Walden – the ones that have made appearances in movies or been used in other pieces of writing.

(“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” is probably one of the best known and oft-used quotes.)

Now, though, I’ve read the entire book, and the list of mind-changing quotes a person could take from it is overwhelming.

Thoreau’s two major themes throughout the book revolve around simplifying one’s life and living a life of nonconformity.

That second theme is one I’ve always been passionate about because its main focus is on thinking for yourself.

I read this book with my junior English students, and they can tell you that I often harp at them to think for themselves, so this was the perfect thing for them to read to get them to try to think deeper than they normally do.

I FILLED an entire notebook with direct quotes, thoughts I had while reading, information I looked up to better understand his allusions, words I didn’t know or remember well, and many other things.

Walden hit upon many of the philosophical things I spend my own thinking time on, so I was in literary heaven while reading this book. Because they are teenagers, my junior students were not as enthralled as I was; however, even many of them showed a definite interest in some of the passages.

Naturally, my favorite chapter was the one entitled “Reading,” and I’d like to share some of my favorite quotes from this section as they are the most relevant to this column.

Like me, Thoreau appreciated the classics and claimed “ . . . 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?” I like that phrasing — “the noblest recorded thoughts.”

He praised books as being worthy of one’s attention, but he cautioned that to be able to truly read well, a person must put forth the work to do so.

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . .” and “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

THIS WOULD entail learning and understanding the languages, the history, the cultures in which some of the great works of literature were written; so, most people, in actuality, do not truly read well even though they read a lot. Thoreau wrote: “The best books are not even read by those who are called good readers.”

He realized the importance of words. “A written word is the choicest of relics.” “It is the work of art nearest to life itself.” Words come from our lips and our breath, so words are “carved out of the breath of life itself.”

While I agreed with virtually everything he wrote in the chapter about reading, the quote I most loved was this: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

I’d like to tell Thoreau, who died in Massachusetts in 1862, that a columnist in Nebraska in 2019 read his book deliberately and appreciated it as one of the classics of American literature it has become.

* * *

This month’s reading selection is “Corelli’s Mandolin” by Louis De Bernières.

Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com.

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