Reading Walden

Like On The Origin of Species, until now I have read most of Walden in bits and pieces, but never the whole thing through. I admit it, though am a bit ashamed to tell the truth. I have thus set out to read Walden in its entirety–front to back. I have been told there is an art to reading classic texts. Writers are so careful in choosing their words, that once the spoken language has changed, as through time, the writing becomes more difficult to understand. Gone, are the clues of clumsy, repetitive writing. If you don’t get the meaning the first time through, you are forever lost. Turning the sentence over again and again in your head is useless, as there is just not enough information there to help.

Sometimes, there is just enough information to make out the meaning, but only after carefully contemplating each word, and perhaps reading the same sentence a dozen or so times. While I do have faith that every thought of certain authors holds profound beauty, the method does not lend itself to inspiration, and one is easily distracted. Many have told me that the best way to read the classics is to read through them without stopping to understand the meaning of every part. What you didn’t understand at first, may become clearer later. Otherwise, perhaps the big picture is more important than the details. I contemplated the difference for some time, wondering which was the right way to go about it, but eventually realized that I was probably only capable of the latter, having merely started so many of the classics.

So, let me now come clean. The only Shakespeare I have read is A Midsummer’s Night Dream–no Othello, Romeo and Juliet. I have never read Tolstoy, Melville, or anything Greek. I read some Sherlock Holmes, some Poe, a little Washington Irving here and there, but mostly, I’m an ignoramus. My friends, however, like to say that I know a little about everything. I usually tell people that I know everything that is not important. For those who try and test me, I point out that by asking, they lend the thing importance, and I suddenly don’t know it. But really, I have spent my life thirsty for knowledge, compulsive in acquiring it, but too impatient to stick with one thing for any length of time. My favorite reading as a child was either the dictionary–a nice fat encyclopedic one–or, when available the encyclopedia itself–Britannica, of course. Today, I am usually “in the middle of” reading several books. My book shelves are littered with books with bookmarks. I generally have a stack of between 5 and 10 books on my nightstand–everything from text books and field guides to novels, magazines, and journals. For a while I was “into” short stories–being the perfect length and tempo to hold my attention.

So here I am wading through Walden–actually skimming the surface like a skipped stone. I’ve bounced through “Economy” and am now making ripples in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” Before me, I see a chapter called “Reading,” which ironically deals with reading the classics. That should be a hoot. I’m thoroughly enjoying the book, I must say (no pun intended). I’ll put my thoughts together a bit more and get back to you to discuss the actual content.

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