Summary and Analysis
Chapter 3 - Reading
In "Economy," the narrator advised his readers to cast off the inessential baggage of civilization so as to be free to adventure upon the great experiment of living. Great books, however, are one of the inheritances that men should not discard. While most of what men inherit from previous generations — conventions, property, and money — is antithetical to spiritual growth, "books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations." The narrator speaks from experience on this point; and while he does not read much at Walden, he realizes the value of literature in his attempt at spiritual growth. He believes that "in dealing with truth we are immortal." The permanent, fixed expression of truth available in literature is thus an absolute necessity for the individual in quest of transcendence. He has found the writings of Homer and Aeschylus to be of greatest value, "for what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?" By reading Dante, Shakespeare, and Oriental and Western scriptures, "we may hope to scale heaven at last."
Having talked about the value of reading great literature, the narrator turns next to the spiritual "sleepers" of society and chides them for their unwillingness to profit from reading and their lamentable eagerness to read shallow, popular fiction. He complains that most men "vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading." The narrator gives a description of this easy reading which accurately characterizes the bulk of popular fiction in nineteenth-century America. To the narrator, it is no wonder that men, and their society, are so spiritually dead. Shabby literature can create only shabby minds.
The narrator concludes the chapter by indicting society for not providing a culture which would awaken the "sleepers." In Concord, and in America, he finds a culture "worthy only of pigmies and manikins. . . . we soar but little higher [than small birds] in our intellectual flights." He calls for a new society dedicated not only to trade and agriculture, but to human culture. Society should be the patron of the fine arts and act to establish uncommon schools" so that men might discover the real significance of life. We should make our villages into centers of culture so that we might one day have "noble villages of men."
That the narrator does not read much while at Walden will be seen as significant if the reader recalls Emerson's three-part description of the transcendentalist's activities: he enriches himself with the wisdom of the past; he is ennobled by the experience of nature; and he attempts to renovate society. Apparently the narrator has already fulfilled the first requisite of the transcendental life and has "skimmed off" much of what is valuable to his life from the literature of the past. This chapter constitutes a description of what the narrator has gained from reading and an exhortation that the reader "mine" the same vein of spiritual truth.
That literature has proven to be a very rich vein for the narrator is indicated by his repeated use of the "new day" metaphor, which indicates spiritual awakening and rebirth. He tells us that the classics are "as beautiful almost as the morning itself," and that he devotes his "most alert and wakeful hours" to the reading of them. He advises his readers to "consecrate morning hours" to Homer and Aeschylus, and promises that spiritual rejuvenation will result: "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book." Images quite the opposite of rebirth are associated with the easy reading of the "sleepers": "The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium.
The reader should especially note the narrator's call for social reform at the end of the chapter. This image of the narrator as a man with a real sense of social concern is one that critics of Thoreau usually manage to overlook when they term him an anti-social recluse.