Welcome back to our series on the libraries of great men. The eminent men of history were often voracious readers and their own philosophy represents a distillation of all the great works they fed into their minds. This series seeks to trace the stream of their thinking back to the source. For, as David Leach, a now retired business executive put it: “Don’t follow your mentors; follow your mentors’ mentors.”
When one pictures Henry David Thoreau, one is apt to think of the famous philosopher tending his bean plants at Walden, or taking one of his daily 4-hour walks in the woods — ever and always out and about in nature.
But Thoreau was equally likely to be found indoors, engaged in intellectual pursuits. Indeed, these two practices constituted the two main chunks of his daily routine: in the mornings he read and wrote at his desk; in the afternoons he sauntered over hill and dale and got his fill of plants, soil, and fresh air.
The two parts of his day were not distinct and cordoned off from each other, either, but together created a vital synergy. Thoreau’s morning reading prepared his mind to observe nature more keenly and draw deeper lessons from the landscape. In turn, the observations he made in the woods allowed him to understand the books he was reading more fully, as well as furnished him with new questions to investigate and study further.
Thoreau found that books would only resonate with him when they connected to experiences and trains of thought he had already formed himself. That is, only after Thoreau had begun making discoveries on his own, would he notice and grasp things in books that expanded or confirmed his observations and theories:
“a man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally…We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling.”
Or as E. M. Forster put it so well, “the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.”
Fortunately for Thoreau, so diverse were his intellectual interests, so varied were the paths he was going down at any given time, that a broad spectrum of books were able to influence him. Robert D. Richardson, a biographer of Thoreau, describes his subject as “a chain reader…He took copious notes in a variety of subjects all going in different directions.” The author of one book would mention several other authors and works that would pique Thoreau’s curiosity, and which he then felt compelled to read next. “Every time he came upon a book that stirred him,” Richardson notes, “this process was repeated.”
These various reading chains became more like webs, as Thoreau found fascinating connections between the subjects he studied. And the more he learned, the more he was able to find unifying principles that linked man and nature, and the more he was able to understand himself. “For Thoreau,” Richardson observes, “every bit of knowledge and every perception of identity shared across the ages served to strengthen his own identity.”
Thoreau’s Favorite Genres and Recommended Reading List
Thoreau’s efforts in mining bits of knowledge particularly centered on the following subjects and genres. At the end of each section, we highlight a sampling of books from that genre which Thoreau found particularly enjoyable, influential, and/or edifying:
The foundation of Thoreau’s intellectual interests were formed from the Greek and Roman classics he studied as a student at Harvard. The pedagogical method of the college at the time revolved around the kind of rote memorization and recitation that might have led Thoreau to dismiss the material as dry and uninteresting. But while his professors didn’t bring much excitement and interest to the ancient texts they assigned, Thoreau himself nonetheless managed to discover an energy and vitality within them (as every man should!) — one which seemed undiminished by time and led to the formation of two of his core beliefs.
First, in reading the observations of ancient Greek and Roman citizens on nature and human nature, Thoreau came to feel that the essential laws which governed one, governed the other, and that these laws remained constant throughout all times and places. From this he concluded that the more one understood the laws of nature, the more one could understand the best way to live. This was a belief he shared with the Stoics, whose works remained a central part of Thoreau’s reading diet throughout his life.
The permanence of natural laws also led Thoreau to believe that no period of history was any better or worse than any other. The dynamics that made up the inner and outer landscape experienced by ancient citizens was precisely the same as that which made up the inner and outer landscape of modernity. Thus, rather than making Thoreau nostalgic for the heroic days of yore, reading works like The Iliad inspired him to believe that such heroism was just as possible in the 19th century as it had been 3,000 years ago. Since Thoreau walked “out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in” then what had been possible for them to do and create, was possible for him.
- Works of Aristotle
- Works of Cicero
- Works of Zeno
- Works of Sophocles
- Works of Euripides
- Enchiridion by Epictetus
- Senecan Tragedy (set of 10 plays)
- Georgics by Virgil
- The Iliad by Homer
- Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
- Natural History by Pliny
Spiritual & Mythological Works
Thoreau lived in a time when Christian belief was an ingrained, taken-for-granted part of society. But in this matter, as in others, Thoreau refused to conform. A transcendentalist and pantheist, he saw God in all creation, and believed that humans could participate in divinity by participating in nature. Thus, while he thought there was much to be learned from Judeo-Christian scripture, and read the Bible himself, he also believed that other spiritual texts and outlets could offer an equal, if not greater, measure of truth and enlightenment:
“If any soul look abroad even today it will not find any word which does it more justice than the New Testament, yet if it be faithful enough it will have experience of a revelation fresher and directer than that…The strains of a more heroic faith vibrate through the week days and the fields than through the Sabbath and the church.”
Thoreau found his revelations on ethics, the nature of man and God, and one’s relationship to the universe through his observations of the environment, and his reading of Stoic texts, the self-development-centered works of German Romantics and fellow transcendentalists (especially his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson), and the scripture and wisdom literature of other faiths, particularly those of Hinduism — an interest that was quite rare for Westerners at the time. “In the Hindu scripture,” Thoreau felt, “the idea of man is quite illimitable and sublime — there is nowhere a loftier conception of his destiny.”
Thoreau also gleaned much inspiration from reading mythology. This included that of the ancient Greeks, but also the tales arising from Northern European and Germanic peoples from whom he had descended. Myths, Thoreau believed, rather than just being made-up stories, constituted time-tested distillations of the truest parts of history. Mythology was akin to a universal language, that, once you attuned yourself to it, would allow you to express your nature and live more fully.
Thoreau’s inner life was lastly enriched by his readings on art and architecture. While he could become frustrated with art critics who dissected landscapes with a detached and purely rational eye, he enjoyed those who mused on the higher meaning of things like beauty, imagination, perspective, and symmetry and who posited that an experience with the sublime — whether firsthand in nature or depicted on a canvas — could serve a moral function. Reading about the nature and meaning of art also heightened Thoreau’s ability to observe the world around him with a keener eye — to see more of what most people missed. For, as Thoreau observed, “We find only the world we look for.”
- On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle
- True Intellectual System of the Universe by Ralph Cudworth
- Comparative History of Philosophical Systems by Joseph Degerando
- Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture by Amos Bronson Alcott
- The Bible
- Bhagavad Gita
- Eastern Monachism by R. Spence Hardy
- A Manual of Buddhism by R. Spence Hardy
- The Poems of Ossian edited and compiled by James Macpherson
- The Vishnu Purana translated by H.H. Wilson
- Samkhyakarika by Ishvara Krishna
- Sacontala, or the Fatal Ring by Kalidasa
- Samaveda translated by John Stevenson
- Institutes of Hindu Law by Manu
- Heimskringla: Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturlason
- Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty by William Gilpin
- An Essay on the Picturesque by Uvedale Price
- Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History by Christian C. J. Bunsen
- History of Ancient Art by Johann Winckelmann
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- Modern Painters by John Ruskin
- The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin
- Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin
Thoreau was a thorough homebody who rarely ventured far from Concord; he felt there was an inexhaustible store of fascination in his own backyard and within himself that could be explored without ever leaving home: “For I measure distance inward and not outward. Within the compass of a man’s ribs there is space and scene enough for any biography.”
Nonetheless, he saw the concept of travel as an important metaphor and structuring principle for life, and found that accounts of others’ trips served as valuable inspiration for his own voyages of self-discovery and self-conquest. Through books he navigated the world of ideas and “saw” much of North America and the world.
When Thoreau did physically travel, whether on shorter walks around Concord, or occasional longer excursions to places like Maine, Cape Cod, and New York, he would read up to a dozen books before his trip in order to enhance the experience. He’d dig into historical accounts of explorers who first tracked the place, naturalist guidebooks on its native flora and fauna, and memoirs of those who had traveled there before. In this way, his mind was prepared to more fully immerse himself in the new experience and understand the people and environment he encountered.
- Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Travels in Canada by Francis Hall
- Adventures on the Columbia River by Ross Cox
- Journal of a Residence and Travels in Columbia by Capt. Charles Stuart Cochrane
- Six Months’ Residence and Travels in Mexico by William Bullock
- A Voyage to Cochinchina [Vietnam] by John Barrow
- Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville
- Mardi, and a Voyage Thither by Herman Melville
- Record of a Journey from Paris to Jerusalem and Back by François-René de Chateaubriand
- Travels Through North and South Carolina by William Bartram
- Arctic Explorations by Elisha Kane
- Travels in Arabia and Africa by Sir Richard Francis Burton
- Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah by Sir Richard Francis Burton
Natural Science Texts
Thoreau’s favorite kind of travel literature was from authors who were part explorer, part scientist — men whose accounts of their travels focused on detailed observations of the natural world they sailed/hiked/paddled through.
Thoreau was himself a rigorous naturalist. While we think of him primarily as a philosopher of non-conformity, he spent much of his time studying botany, zoology, and geology — both in the natural environment and in books. He would copy long excerpts into notebooks from the texts he read, and enjoyed learning the scientific names for all the trees and plants that grew in his own area and abroad. The study of science, he felt, provided him with a unique language, a “grammar” that allowed him to better grasp nature and express its power and spiritual meaning.
Indeed, Thoreau didn’t see a conflict between developing a more objective, scientific view of the environment, and embracing a spiritual sense of it as well; in fact, he felt the pursuits went hand-in-hand and fed each other. “The intellect of most men is barren. They neither fertilize nor are fertilized…it is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, that gives birth to imagination.” Thoreau continually sought to integrate and balance his inner and outer life in order to create a comprehensive view of the universe; he was both artist and data collector, philosopher and scientist, poet and naturalist, and each side of himself made the other part stronger.
- On Farming by M. Terenti Varronis
- Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell
- On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
- A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World by Charles Darwin
- The History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh
- Aspects of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt
- Kosmos by Alexander von Humboldt
- Hints Toward the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- American Medical Botany by Jaboc Bigelow
- North American Sylva by Francois Andre Michaux
- Journals of Lewis and Clark
- Philosophia Botantica by Carl Linnaeus
- Principles of Zoology by Louis Agassiz and A.A. Gould
- The Animal Kingdom by Georges Cuvier
- Travels into North America by Pehr Kalm
- De Agri Cultura by Cato
- Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber by John Evelyn
The History of European Discovery and American Indian Culture
From time to time, Thoreau would dive headfirst into a particular subject, absolutely immersing himself in his research of it. Such was the case after he returned from a trip to Canada which whet his curiosity about the first European explorers who landed there. He created an extensive list of sources on early Canadian history, and then systematically studied each one, copying extracts from the books into what he called his “Canadian Notebook.”
Reading about the early explorers naturally led him to an interest in the people on the other side of these first encounters — the Indians. Thoreau had always felt a close affinity with native peoples and the wild, self-reliant, minimal lifestyle they embodied. He ended up reading 270 books on them, again copying passages of particular interest until he filled 11 notebooks.
- Sketches of a Tour to the Lakes by Thomas Mckenney
- A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving
- Paradise on Earth by Henri Baudet
- Topographical Description of Lower Canada by Joseph Bouchette
- British Dominions in North America by Joseph Bouchette
- Voyages by Jacques Cartier
- Voyages de l’Amerique by Claude-Charles Bacqueville
- A Memoir of Jacques Cartier: His Voyages to the St. Lawrence by Jean Francois Roberval
- Jesuit Relations compiled by Reuben Gold Thwaits
- League of the Iroquois by Lewis Henry Morgan
- Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America by John Dunn Hunter
- The History of the Five Indian Nations by Cadwallader Colden
- Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States by Henry Schoolcraft
Early English and Romantic Poetry
Another one of Thoreau’s immersive reading projects centered on early English literature. Thoreau dabbled in writing verse himself, especially in his younger years, and seems to have set out to create his own personal anthology of the best English poetry ever penned. To begin, he drew up a list of eminent English poets, and then took short trips to Cambridge where he fairly camped out at Harvard’s library, working his way through collections of poems for each name on the list. He read early Anglo-Saxon verse, Chaucer, and just about everything he could get his hands on up to Milton. He also read books on the history of the times, cultures, and peoples this poetry had emerged from, as well as existing anthologies. Even after Thoreau’s project on early English poetry was through he continued to enjoy reading verse throughout his life, including that of the prominent Romantic poets of his day.
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
- Works of John Milton
- Works of William Cowper
- Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Works of John Keats
- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
As is readily apparent, Thoreau was certainly not one of those men who “neither fertilize nor are fertilized”! His reading involved vibrant and unending cross-pollination. Each subject he studied led him to insights about others, and the creation of these rich intellectual chains — a vast web of mental models — is what ultimately made him one of the most original and fruitful minds in American history.
“A truly good book…teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint … What I began by reading I must finish by acting.” –Henry David Thoreau