Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 3 : Reading | Summary



Thoreau recalls that the cabin at Walden Pond was better than a university for studying "the noblest recorded thoughts of man." He hasn't been as diligent with Homer's Iliad as he'd like—manual labor keeps getting in the way—but he sustains himself with the thought that he can read more great classics later.

Thoreau's thoughts about great reading:

  • Learning Greek and Latin allows readers to experience the classics in their original languages. The difference between spoken language and literary language is so vast that simply knowing how to speak classical languages will not be enough preparation. People need to train like athletes to read well.
  • Writing is more noble than speaking: "A written word is the choicest of relics." Great writers are more influential than kings.
  • To read easy books, such as love stories, is to "vegetate." Inferior books are like gingerbread compared to whole wheat.
  • "I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced": Concord doesn't do enough to promote the fine arts. The town spends plenty on farming and infrastructure; where's the funding for more noble pursuits?

Thoreau suggests that the average reader does not know how to read the way a great poet would. Average readers versus great readers are like astrologers versus astronomers: "We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot." This is the 19th century, he argues; why should even small towns like Concord be so provincial?


The reader has already seen that one thread in Thoreau's ceaseless search for self-improvement is a need to justify himself to the ordinary people he professes to disdain. That thread is present in "Reading," along with the sense that Thoreau is also trying to encourage himself as a writer. He has moved to Walden Pond to write; he needs for his trade to be taken seriously. His motivation explains his labeling of authors as "a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society."

Thoreau realizes that most people have not had a Harvard education, making them unlikely to pick up Latin and Greek so they can really dig into the classics. He sets rather impossible standards partly because, as a Transcendentalist, he truly believes that people should constantly strive for enlightenment. In confessing that he's not reading enough Homer and Plato, Thoreau shows his sincere desire to benefit from the wisdom of the ancients, while also drawing attention to his astute character and high standards.

At the beginning of this chapter, Thoreau mentions working so hard that he has no time for Homer's Iliad. He fails to realize that other people—full-time farmers, for instance—may also wish they had more time to read.

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