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At first, Thoreau is uncompromising when it comes to reading. He relaxes his standard a bit, later in the chapter. Classics in the original language are what reading essentially is about, though. We haven't really read these works if we've read them in translation. He is a serious reader, obviously, and he thinks that reading for momentary pleasure, as in novel reading, is a waste of time. We today tend to elevate reading no matter what the subject or quality, probably because, with television, any act of reading comes to seem relatively intellectual! I wonder if Thoreau ever did read a novel. I can't imagine it. A novel might seem like gossip to him.
I like what he says about the answers we are seeking existing somewhere in the great books. I have no doubt this is true:
" There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life."(11)
Then he makes the further point that the wisdom won from this type of reading will broaden our minds, so that we don't make the mistake of believing that the clothing of our favorite truth makes it the only truth:
"Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let "our church" go by the board."(11)
Thoreau has wonderful ideas about adult education education, ideas that have never been realized so are still well ahead of our times.