By Kevin Rabalais
Much like Alexander the Great before him, Henry David Thoreau kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad close at hand. During the two years he spent on Walden Pond, however, other labors—physical labors: the completion of his cabin, the cultivation of food to nourish his body—prevented much reading, the act that nourishes the spirit. “Yet,” he writes in Walden, “I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future.”
At Walden Pond, Thoreau searched for his place in the world. He wanted to find, he writes, “where it was then that I lived.”
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
More than one hundred and fifty years after Thoreau’s sojourn, most of us live in a world that encourages us to spend our days striving to save time. We rush through life, convincing ourselves that dividends await. (“…always promising to pay, promising to pay, to-morrow, and dying to-day, insolvent,” Thoreau writes. And later: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”)
Every reader shares a dream of what we’ll do with all of the time we think we’re saving. We ache for uninterrupted hours, that desert island and nothing but a stack of books. A reader does so with the unshakeable faith, as Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet, that from each of those books “A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world.”
When Thoreau went to Walden Pond in 1845, Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil—those authors of works “as beautiful almost as the morning itself,” he writes—were not readily available to English-language readers. In our own era of abundance, we can, of course, access their works and entire on-line libraries of classics with a few keystrokes. This is where we live. It’s an age in which we can purchase Letters to a Young Poet, or any other of the 125 volumes in the range of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, for less than the price of a cup of coffee. Inside each resides an “immensity of a world” awaiting our exploration.
Abundance encourages distraction, and information and knowledge are cousins many times removed. A quick look at the evening news makes it easy to see Neil Postman’s prescience in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), in which he declares Huxley, rather than Orwell, the true prophet:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke offers advice for how to avoid such a fate—to avoid what Thoreau wanted to avoid more than half a century before him: namely to make certain that when he came to die he would not discover that he had failed to live.
“There is,” Rilke writes, “only one single way. Go into yourself.” His topic is writing, but in this slim volume—one of the great gifts of twentieth-century literature—he also provides us with a blueprint for the art of living fully. (“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.”) Many readers recognize a kindred soul as early as the opening paragraph of the first of Rilke’s ten letters to the young poet who sought his advice:
Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.
No reader finds it surprising to hear that other readers pursue the classics as an opportunity to try and live many lives in one, to attempt to gain comprehension of all that endures. These works of art, in Thoreau’s words, are “the noblest recorded thoughts of man.” We seek sanctuary in them, all of these books that never stop staying what they have to say. We do so in the hope that we, too, may endure in the face of all—the good and bad and worse—that life poses. We read in the hope that we may discover an author with the power to change our lives in the same way that the works of the Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen changed Rilke’s: “One just comes to relish them increasingly, to be always more grateful, and somehow better and simpler in one’s contemplating, deeper in one’s belief in life, and in living happier and bigger.”
And so as we strive to buy time, imaging all the ways we’ll spend the surplus (which island? which stack of books?), let us gather sustenance from what our age makes so readily and easily available. Beneath the chaos and noise of popular culture and the twenty-four hour news cycle, the world that Thoreau envisioned in Walden awaits us:
We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.