Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thoreau, Walden, Day #1

--This is a restored version of the interior of Thoreau's Cabin at Walden pond.

--In what ways are Thoreau's comments on deciding to live at Walden a reflection of Emerson's ideas about individualism in "Self-Reliance"?

--In "Reading," Thoreau develops a theory of reading and education. Compare it with your own vision of the purpose of reading and/or getting an education.

--"Sounds" discusses the railroad that travels quite near his cabin (suggesting first that this is no retreat into the wilderness); it is commonly read as emblematic or symbolic of technology more generally for Thoreau. What is his attitude toward the railroad? What are its positive and negative qualities? What does this suggest more generally about Transcendentalist attitudes toward technology?


  1. Thoreau brings up many points in “Reading” that are truly applicable to today’s society and education’s role in today’s society. I believe that education and reading truly are the way to learn and better yourself and society as a whole as Thoreau seems to. When he stated toward the beginning of “Reading” that “To Read… is a noble exercise and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem,” (1925) I think that he really pointed out one of the core points of learning; it takes time and truly is an exercise. I personally believe that learning is in fact an exercise and it is an exercise that many people today are too lazy to fully immerse themselves in. Today, instead of looking at education as a form of self-betterment, a lot of people view it as something you simply must do in order to succeed in the world. There has been such an emphasis placed on grades and “being the best” in society that education has become full of pressure instead of passion. I think this has led to a decline in how we use our education to out fullest potential as well. This is especially true in the U.S., where we are constantly falling behind other countries in terms of education. This relates directly to when Thoreau said, “ We boast that we belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture” (1929). I think that there really needs to be more of an emphasis not only on how we can use education today for self-improvement but also improvement for our society and culture as a whole.

    --jessica schuster

  2. It's pretty clear from the reading that Thoreau has spent a lot of time by himself recently. He's very wordy, and rather than simply making his point, he beats you over the head with it. Thoreau feels that people aren't reading enough "good" literature. He defines "good" literature as the classics from Greece, Rome, and Europe. He feels that all books should be read in the original tongue otherwise you have an "imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race." He thinks that if you don't challenge yourself with tougher readings, you become illiterate. He thinks that education should occur throughout someone's entire life, and that there should be towns set aside for the sole purpose of educating people.

    I agree with Thoreau that a person should never stop learning. If he saw college towns like Columbia today, he would be pleased. However, I disagree with his conclusion about reading. He doesn't value fiction writing, he seems to think it's for kids. But I think fiction writing is the most important kind of writing, because it allows for the expansion of the human imagination. It's the human imagination that brings progress, because it's in the imagination where we ask ourselves what could be, and don't limit ourselves to what is. He sees books as nothing more than a way to get smarter and learn bigger words than everybody else. He thinks that books should be our primary way to learn. I disagree. I think the best way to learn is through other people. If a person says something that confuses you, you can ask them to clarify. If a book says something that confuses you, all you can really do is read it over again until you figure it out.

  3. While reading Thoreau's chapter on "Reading" I found myself agreeing with him at certain points but then disagreeing with others. For instance, one of his concerns is that his society or 'village' is "a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper" (1929). I feel, in some ways, that this can relate to our society and while all may not agree, I know a great deal of college students who don't read more than they have to. Some of them don't read at all, and as far as reading the newspaper goes... some people have never even touched a newspaper. I'm not accusing our whole generation of being nonreaders, but I've heard more often than not "Why are you even reading for your class? I seriously never do that." As an English major reading is something I obviously enjoy, so, once again, it doesn't apply to everyone. Thoreau does make a very good point though and it is well-stated.

    Something else that struck my attention that he views reading as a merely informative task. While reading for information and intelligence is very important, I also think that reading should be a leisurely act and if one wants to choose a fun novel to read, that isn't such a a terrible thing either. While it's important to recognize the classics, as Thoreau thinks we should, I also feel that it's important to gain intelligence through experience and decision. This can include choosing the literature that one reads instead of being told what is readable and what isn't.

  4. Thoreau in "Economy" extols the virtues of casting off the unnecessary, cumbersome and distracting elements of modern life in order to live more freely; in "reading," though, he lets us know that one should never give up great literature. Thoreau's idea of great literature include the classics, and he writes that they hold fixed and certain truths. I agree a fair amount on this, but I disagree that only the classics have virtue. He also says that reading is important to personal growth, which i very much agree with. But if one is to grow as a person, why should they focus only on these books that are deemed to be great? In my opinion, it's variety and searching that makes for the most growth.
    He goes on to write of people's disinterest in good literature and says that most people "vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading." The more things change, the more things stay the same; we still see people reading light, unsubstantial fluff and there are people that chide our society at large for losing interest in intellectual reading. To Thoreau, this disinterest in good literature has lead to many societal ills, including a lack of spiritual growth. I think reading can do wonders for the soul and the mind, but it's not just a disinterest in reading, a disinterest in the arts and discussion.
    I like Thoreau's thoughts on learning and reading, and i think not much has changed since he wrote Walden, in a sense. But how do you go about fixing these problems? It's a question Thoreau wanted an answer to, and one i do as well.

  5. Mike Flachs
    After spending the first few pages of this section commenting on the sounds of nature he so often hears, Thoreau soon turns to what he dubs the “scream” of the Fitchburg Railroad. Overall, Thoreau’s attitude towards the railroad is generally positive. He begins by praising the railroad and man’s ingenuity stating, “…when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” (1933). However, he soon expresses fear for what he sees as the overly competitive nature of business and the threat it poses to the wit and character of the nation. I believe that this passage suggests that while transcendentalists respect the technological achievements of mankind they also lament the loss of contact with nature that follows hand in hand with technological advancement.

  6. Thoreau's infatuation with picturesque scenes comes through very clearly on page 1916 with his descriptions of Hollowell farm, one of the many places he had "bought" over his lifetime. Thoreau says he was drawn in by the "gray color and ruinous state of the house and barn, and the dilapidated fences, which put such an interval between me and the last occupant" and "the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, gnawed by rabbits." While most people would not make an investment---even if it is only an emotional one---in a property so decrepit; a piece of land is usually viewed by prospective buyers (or in Thoreau's case, "buyers") with an eye searching for its potential for comfort and commerce. Instead, Thoreau "was in haste to buy it, before the proprietor finished getting out some rocks, cutting down the hollow apple trees, and grubbing up some young birches which had sprung up in the pasture, or, in short, had made any more of his improvements." For him, these "improvements" would steal the beauty that shabbiness had brought to the farm. He would rather inhabit a purposeless, unusable property that gave him a sense of picturesque beauty than spend his time in a functional, updated space.

    P.S. I wonder what all of these land owners thought about Thoreau's constant pretend-buying of their land.

  7. In "Reading", I believe Thoreau makes some very excellent points and arguments. He views reading as a means of education, and, in turn, views education as a means of self-improvement. He criticizes those who learn to read purely for practical purposes of trade and material gain and believes that constant study and learning should be the goal of every person. For the most part, I agree with this. He also argues that the written word is more influential than the spoken word, stating "The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion...speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him."(1926) I believe that, in most cases, this is true. The written word is something that is supposed to preserve a thought, argument, or idea for an indefinite amount of time and is usually meant to be applicable to all peoples of all times. In this way, I think that everyone of any walk of life can benefit from reading, weather for aesthetic satisfaction or intellectual stimulation.

    I did, however, disagree with Thoreau on his argument that it is necessary for people to study Classical languages. While I do believe that there might be some benefits for doing so, I hardly believe it necessary for anyone to do so. The main function of language (while often emotionally inspiring and eloquent) is to relay information to one another. Whatever was taught in Greek can be learned in English. I believe Thomas Paine said it best in the Age of Reason when he wrote, "So far as the study of languages may contribute to the progress and communication of knowledge (for it has nothing to do with the creation of knowledge) it is only in the living languages that new knowledge is to be found; and certain it is, that, in general, a youth will learn more of a living language in one year, than of a dead language in seven."

    I find this to be a perfect example of just how much the beliefs and thought process of the thinkers in the Enlightenment Era differ from those in the Romantic Era. Instead of the Enlightenment's focus on progress and skepticism of tradition, the Romantic Era seems to want to take us BACK to many traditional eras, and believes that there is as much to be learned looking to the past as there is looking to the future.

  8. By choosing to live in solitude, Thoreau very clearly displays individualism. By rejecting society, he can be completely self reliant and reject the opinions/interests of others in society. The solitude of Walden is a big factor in individualism because it allows for Thoreau to be free of society and become completely self reliant. By cutting off society’s opinions/ interests he is able to stress the moral worth of the individual. I take his description of the cabin as kind of a symbol of his rejection to society. He says, “I did not need to go out doors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its freshness. It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest weather”. The cabin is a connector between Thoureau and nature, which in turn is a connector between him and his true self. With this, the cabin can also be viewed as a barrier between society, because it lets in fresh air, it isn’t dense with other’s opinions.

  9. I agree with the high level of importance that Thoreau places on reading, further more, I believe that America as a whole places an high level of importance upon reading as well. With programs implemented in our schools today such as 'SSR' (Silent Sustained Reading ). Studies show that students who read, succeed. "To read well, that is to read true books, in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem." Reading is the key to knowledge, if one cannot read information, then one cannot gain knowledge. Being a college student, I was also intrigued by his observations of college educated students. "Even the college-bread and so called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts any where made to become acquainted with them." I find this interesting because it is still true today. Many college students do not ready classics or the Bible unless they are English or Religious majors. This is worsened with today's technology occupying the time and minds of students across the world.

  10. Thoreau, in the section "Reading", speaks as though he is disgusted with the current state of literature, considering it mostly predicated on meaningless local gossip and unable to challenge the mind of the reader. He says that even with the new advances in printing, writers have not come close to emulating the works of the classical authors. He believes reading should be done to sharpen and maintain the mind, not merely for idle enjoyment. Personally, I consider nothing wrong with reading for enjoyment, so long as it is peppered with substantive reading as well. I think Thoreau's cries for a greater emphasis on literacy would have gone unheeded for this reason-you can't make people want to learn more about literature by scolding and shaming them as Thoreau does.