Who Does She Thinks She Is?

I am an old soul. It matters not my age nor my global position; my heart has made a connection with one of the literary greats and I seek to introduce a man that few bother to understand. Henry would probably see me as one of the sillies, caught up too much in the ridiculousness that is modern life, but I desire to take a page from his book and simplify, simplify, simplify!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Standing on Tip-Toe to Read

We've all done it.  We've all put our brains into neutral, often poolside, and purely for the sake of recreational reading, we pick up the latest of society's "must-reads" and pride ourselves on being current, up-to-date, cool.

No effort was required.  This was a no-brainer.  No problem.

Unless, perhaps, this is all we ever read.

Henry David Thoreau, in his century, had a bone to pick with popular fiction and its distractions away from more academic activity.  He argues:

"Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience...but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to."

Consider how often we read material which requires us to stand on tip-toe; which motivates us to think, to ponder, to slow down and grasp the beauty of language, to jump-start our intellects, to learn a new word.  It happens all the time when we are full-time students with pending grades, and honors, and scholarships.  What about when there are no external assignments?  What are we requiring of ourselves?

In Walden, in the chapter entitled "Reading", Henry gives a brilliant description of the limited merits of popular fiction, which he refers to as gingerbread; baked daily, ever present and ever mindless. I highly recommend you seek out what Henry has to say about "the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before."

He chastises the limited attention given to classic literature. "The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers....Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics.... One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it....he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it."

I hope this is a rather cynical view and that in our society today, for the most part, we are stretching our minds and our intellects to read the most noble and timeless literature which comes as a gift from centuries past. I hope that gingerbread isn't our only fare and we are seeking to benefit from the great minds of the past as well as the great minds of our day.

It may occasionally require standing on tip-toe, making a little extra effort to understand, to grasp the meaning, and to lay hold upon a treasure that may be just out of reach.

Trust me, that never hurt anybody.


  1. Well said! I wish I'd read this while I was still teaching high school English; I would definitely have shared it with my students! Thanks for posting.