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MonkeyNotes-Walden by Henry David Thoreau
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Chapter Three: Reading

Summary

In this aptly titled chapter, Thoreau deals with the acquisition of culture through reading. He asserts that most of man's quests for immortality are through temporary things: possessions, family, and social status. He claims that only truth makes man immortal, and truth is only available after lengthy study and self-examination. Thoreau further asserts that time spent in self-improvement will lead to a greater understanding of the truth. According to him, the best way to improve oneself is through the study of great works of literature.

Thoreau explains that his isolated house is well suited for serious reading and contemplation, but he is not within reach of any library. As a result, he contents himself with serious study of the few pieces of literature he does possess, when he has time between his chores. Most of this chapter concerns the quality of reading, not the quantity. First, Thoreau pays homage to the importance of the classics, which he says should be read for their enduring values. He makes a short list of the classics he feels are most important, including Shakespeare, the Bible, Aeschylus, Homer, and Dante. Thoreau then asserts that knowledge of the classics in translation is imperfect; only a reading of the classics in their original languages can be considered pure. Further, he asserts that true reading must be accompanied by serious study and concentration.


Thoreau criticizes the reading habits of modern man. He believes that people generally tend to prefer easy reading to serious reading. He off-handedly remarks that it is a sad aspect of human nature that most men would stop to pick up a silver coin, but not the golden words of a true classic. Thoreau criticizes the contemporary literature of his time, claiming that it makes the mind of the reader grow complacent and, therefore, lazy. He also criticizes books that fail to exercise the reader's mind and enrich his intellect. He remarks that "books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations." Unfortunately, most people are not well read or informed about good literature.

Thoreau ends the chapter by addressing some of his views on the society that he temporarily left. He suggests that despite all of mankind's progress, there is a great deficit in the area of learning. He feels that schools need a change in their system of teaching and learning so that children do not simply forget their education when they grow up. He also feels that libraries should be extensive and accessible to all people. If they will only avail themselves of the great books in the library, they can gain a new level of awareness about life.

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