The following are a series of essays and notes inspired by the writing of Henry David Thoreau.

Friday
Apr132007

on reading

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem."

It is my feeling and my hope that the above quotation, written by Henry David Thoreau, applies to the last 10 years of my life. Although I've accomplished a few other, and lesser, things since 2000, I believe that my greatest accomplishment has been the number of classic books I've chosen to read.

It's actually a bit strange. While I was completing a graduate degree in Fine Art between 1997 and 1999, I found myself secretly reading Lao Tsu. And, after finishing my official university studies, I found myself reading almost obsessively - diving into the psychological writings of William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Thomas Moore, and James Hillman; then on to the stoics Epictetus and Seneca; then to poets Rilke, Mallarme, and Gibran; human mythology so wonderfully explained by Joseph Campbell; and finally, on to essays by Emerson, Bacon, and Montaigne.

Montaigne particularly interested me, as can be seen in some of the other pages of stillbook. After spending about two years reading and re-reading his essays, I was always amazed by the intimacy and honesty of his writing. Reading Montaigne's work has been truly foundational, as I have since tried to write in a style completely my own. Or perhaps I should say.... as I've tried to forget my style of writing, so that I may express myself and my thoughts in the most personal, and therefore, the most unique way that I am able.

I suppose you could label me a chain reader - the writing and wisdom of one author always seems to lead me to another. Writers like Yutang and Emerson lead me to Montaigne, who, in turn, lead me to myself.

But, my interest in Montaigne predictably faded slowly, eventually reaching a conclusion back in 2004. Since then, though I've continued to read, I have felt a bit directionless, even lost, intellectually. Perhaps I needed a break, or some time in the darkness, in order to appreciate the next creative awakening.

So now, after a few winding intellectual and business experiments, I am returning to my writing and to the noble exercise I've come to love. Fueled by a growing number of walks through several parks and trails in my hometown, I have been rediscovering my creative energies. Photography and Thoreau have been my most welcome discoveries.

While Montaigne was my indoor cafe' campanion, Thoreau has become my outdoor hiking companion.

In the journal entries that follow, Thoreau will sometimes be quoted and mentioned by name. Other times, however, he will only be represented in spirit. His accute perceptions and uncanny insights into the nature of the world and into the nature of humanity will always be kept fresh in my mind. Considering the extent to which he was misunderstood and underappreciated during his own life, paying homage to his spirit in stillbook is something I feel happy, even honored, to do.

So, happy reading. I hope that in some small way this journal will be uplifting to whomever explores its pages.

Wednesday
Apr182007

on writing

"The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him."

After re-reading and reflecting on my last journal entry, I've realized that it is simply too difficult to compose a short essay "on reading" and not compose another essay "on writing." The two activities are connected to such a degree that they simply wouldn't exist without one another. Yet, in a very basic way, I think these two activities do have their distinctions.

Reading, which is akin to listening to someone talk, is a receptive intellectual process that primarily requires the reader to be open, or attentive, to the writer's message. Although good reading and good listening can be considered active processes, I would maintain that writing is active, or constructive, to a much greater degree. When a person writes, if gifted, he is essentially speaking in the most powerful way he can.

As Thoreau points out in the quotation above, writing has a lasting quality, and it tends to impact people in a more significant way than a speech or a conversation. A person who is giving a speech must consider the audience. If the audience is falling asleep, the orator must say something to wake them up, and if the audience is too agitated, the orator must say something to calm them down. Often orators are charasmatic and outgoing, and at times their personality and cadence can be even more important than the meaning of their words.

The art of writing, on the other hand, has a different focus. Perhaps it is more of a one-on-one exchange between the writer and the reader. Instead of speaking to a group of people who are all influenced by each other, the writer speaks directly to the individual when he is alone, at a time when he is not easily swayed by his peers. The very best writing may sound like it has actually been written for the specific person reading it. And, as Thoreau also suggests, writing of truly historic proportions will appeal primarily to a select few, since not everyone will be able to grasp the depth of the writer's message or appreciate the nuance of the writing itself.

I find the very best writing to be lyrical and rythmic, filled with hidden meanings and subtext. Varying sentence structures and syntax set the tone. The way the sentences follow each other, often flowing back and forth, like a gentle rocking chair, influence our receptivity. While a young or immature reader might focus almost entirely on the specific definitions of each word, a more mature reader might gravitate toward the subtext. And, a particularly astute reader might feel themselves reading faster or slower at different intervals, being led through a book almost as if it were a river. Some passages may be so wise or vivid that the reader feels like they need to pause and reflect on the power of a certain metaphor.

A gifted writer will have considered all of this. And, a gifted reader, no matter what generation, will be one of the select few capable of appreciating it.

All of this brings to mind the aphorism... "We have two ears and one mouth for a reason."

Shouldn't we listen twice as much as we speak? And when we listen, shouldn't we listen for everything? When we read, have we read the words and felt the tone? Can we comprehend the subtext? And, with regard to writing... can we exclaim something without using an exclamation point? Is it possible to more affectively assert ourselves by asking a question? Or by sounding hesitant or uncertain?

About seven years ago, I read Walden for the first time. I was in my early 30's and was at the beginning of my own personal and unstructured education. Since then, I've read Waldon twice more. I've read two different biographies of Thoreau (twice each), and I've recently finished reading "Letters to a Spiritual Seeker," which is a re-published group of letters that Thoreau wrote to his friend, and desciple, Harrison Blake.

In short, I've been reading a lot of Thoreau lately. And, I think I've been reading his work so much because he practiced what he preached. He walked the talk. He wrote with the hope that at least a few people would take the time to read his work carefully. Although many of his contemporaries didn't grasp the depth of his work, I think he knew, deep down, after being published, that other generations would.

It's obvious to me that Thoreau put his heart and soul into his writing. He carefully considered each of his phrases and sentences; and, this is why his words have stood the test of time. The words of Walden come alive and awaken the convictions in those who are ready to listen and understand them.

Writers like Thoreau often make me wonder.... is being prolific really that impressive? Should we measure the gift of the writer by the number of pages written? Or should we measure the writer by the number of inspired pages written?

"A written word is the choicest of relics," wrote Thoreau.

And, to that, I would like to add,

"The choicest relics are the most rare."

So, by the example of Mr. Thoreau, I will continue to write as carefully as I am able. I will read well and often, and like a plant that only blooms for a short time each year, I will hope that my writing, though infrequent, aspires to the greatest depths.