The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations. It is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has heard. Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?
~Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Think hard, reach down deep in your heart and soul
for a way to kill these suitors in your house,
either by stealth or open combat.
You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—
It’s time you were a man.
Book 1, Lines 338—342, The Odyssey
Read well; read deeply, and read often. Three short phrases sum up the greater part of what is basic to an understanding of a complex and evolving world. To read well you need to read closely, to think imaginatively and to allow yourself to be challenged intellectually, emotionally, culturally, and politically. To read deeply is to search for meanings, morals and messages within the images and actions within a text . It forces you to decipher the metaphors that cling to the twists and turns of plots, or it prods you to understand the spartan logic of a philosopher’s mind as he or she lays out a reasoned reflection on the conundrums and constants of life. To read often and well is to place reading before the lesser pursuits of the day. Second only to the feeding and sheltering of the body is the feeding and nurturing of the mind—and there is no greater food than a piece of great literature!
Not all of you have the courage to read a good book, and that is a travesty only to yourself. Some of you have already blocked the gates to the greater reservoirs of your mind. How can I teach you anything? How can I expect you to be moved when you are anchored in your safe and shallow harbor? If you are not touched by a book, then don’t touch it—don’t wound eternity with an idle mind. “But,” you say, with exasperation; “you give us these books; you force us to read them. How can we be touched when we are force-fed what to read? How can there be romance when there is no passion? What teenager does not want to rebel against the directives and edicts of a misguided teacher?”
Therein lies the rub: “Misguided!” What if the teacher is not misguided? What if, on the contrary, he or she is very well guided by life, instinct, and vocation? How could you then, not listen? Why wouldn’t you listen if there was some measure of hope that this teacher could guide you to a greater understanding of life than you ever dreamed possible. I know that at a certain point in my life I let Henry David Thoreau be my teacher, and only then did I realize that it was cynicism and laziness that kept me from accessing the opportunities created by reading the great works of literature, and so I began a thirty-two year adventure of reading—a journey where I still feel that I am barely out of the harbor! The first book was The Odyssey and I’m damn sure it will be the last—if I have any control over it. Life is too precious to chatter and blather with fools and strangers. If you are unwilling to face the challenges of The Odyssey, go back to your face book page and gossip with the idle minds of your generation—and mine, for that matter.
If you are afraid to become a man, then don’t become one.