in: Living, Reading

Thoreau’s 16 Essential Quotes on Books and Reading

Henry David Thoreau never had a standard professional life (though we can still learn much from his ideas about work). Yet he was productive in his own way, keeping to a daily routine that was broken into two main chunks: 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 Thoreau’s day were not distinct and cordoned off from each other, 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 and ideas to investigate and study further.

This dynamic informed Thoreau’s philosophy on the value of reading. He didn’t see it as an end in itself; he didn’t look to books only to inform him or entertain him or fill his mind with other people’s ideas. Like his friend Emerson, Thoreau read with an eye towards gaining greater self-reliance; books were catalysts for forming his own original opinions and taking action in the world.

Below are Thoreau’s choicest quotes on the power of reading and how to choose good books.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

“The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men.”

“Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions—such I call good books.”

“A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the west, or in the jungles of the east.”

“A book should contain pure discoveries, glimpses of terra firma, though by shipwrecked mariners, and not the art of navigation by those who have never been out of sight of land.”

“A truly good book . . . is so true that it teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint . . . the inspiring volume hardly leaves me leisure to finish its latter pages. It is slipping out of my fingers while I read. It creates no atmosphere in which it may be perused, but one in which its teachings may be practiced. It confers on me such wealth that I lay it down with the least regret. What I began by reading I must finish by acting.”

“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.”

“Most books belong to the house and the street only, and in the fields their leaves feel very thin. They are bare and obvious, and have no halo or haze about them. Nature lies far and fair behind them all.”

“There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject; as there is room for more light the brightest day and more rays will not interfere with the first.”

“I have no time to read newspapers. If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events which make the news transpire—thinner than the paper on which it is printed—then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.”

“It is necessary to find out exactly what books to read on a given subject. Though there may be a thousand books written upon it, it is only important to read 3 or 4—they will contain all that is essential & a few pages will show which they are. Books which are books are all that you want—& there are but half a dozen in any thousand.”

“To the philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”

“It is not all books that are as dull as their readers.”

“In books, that which is most generally interesting is what comes home to the most cherished private experiences of the greatest number. It is not the book of him who has traveled the farthest over the surface of the globe, but of him who has lived the deepest and been the most at home.”

“A book should be so true as to be intimate and familiar to all men as the sun to their faces. Such a word as is occasionally uttered to a companion in the woods in summer, and both are silent.”


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