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May 9, 2003
By a pond in Massachusetts
I had a friend at school whose parents worked at a university. Apparently they were both lecturers, but that didn't mean much to me when I was in the first year of high school. I didn't know what a university was, or what one might do there, or why. The whole university thing seemed mysterious, so I ignored it for at least another ten years. This leads me to today's theme: ignorance.
This particular friend had gone to the same primary school as I did, and lived in the same area. One day we walked home together, and on the way we talked about what we were reading. I was particularly keen to talk about books, because I was absurdly proud of what I was doing in that area. Seeing that I'd just started high school, I'd recently become much more ambitious in my relationship with the printed page, more organised, more adult.
Accordingly I'd made the decision to reread all twenty-three Famous Five books. For an extra point of difficulty, I was going to do it in order. I casually revealed this daring plan, and then boastfully admitted that I was making steady, organised, adult progress.
To my surprise, my friend failed to gasp in awe. He neglected to salute the audacity and scope of my plan. In fact, he made no comment at all. To fill the gap in the conversation, I asked him what he was reading. His answer was All The Presidents Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He was twelve, I was eleven, and I gave up Enid Blyton that afternoon. It was the exact moment I started to improve my reading habits.
In the years since then, I've often wondered how much ground I've actually covered. I seem to have read a lot, but very little of what I feel I should've read. I've read a little bit of Shakespeare, but never a whole play, a little bit of Dickens, but never a whole novel, and nothing of just about everyone else. I've never read Pride and Prejudice, or Wuthering Heights, or Ulysses. Gathered around me are three large bookshelves stacked high with famous books that I've never opened. They sit there, as they've sat there for years, unread, unloved, unknown.
At the moment I'm making a tiny dint in this wilderness of neglect. I've started on Walden, Henry Thoreau's epic of life by a pond. It's the toughest book I've ever attempted. Thoreau can't seem to remember who he's writing for. Sometimes it seems that he's addressing a particular reader, and sometimes it seems that he's standing on a soapbox, yelling about the cost of the soapbox. There's also a great deal of demented muttering, carelessly aimed at an unspecified target.
The upshot of all this is that Thoreau comes across as a mid-nineteenth century Unabomber. His major gripe about society is that he doesn't possess enough firepower to destroy it completely. At the same time, it's also clear that he loves frogs, and is partial to a good swamp. His book is full of startling individual sentences and awful pages. Trying to make sense of a paragraph is generally impossible. Reading two paragraphs in the same hour is akin to running a marathon. It now seems that I spurned Enid Blyton and started Thoreau on the same day. Two decades of torture later, I've only just finished the first chapter. It's a very long chapter, and I dread to think of how much longer the rest of the book is going to take.
There'll be more SoFo, but there might be a short break of twenty or thirty years first. For reasons of my own, I have to finish this book, even though I have one of my own to write. Walden is a real place, of course, but I'm thinking it would be nice if it was also a season. Then I could put up a sign saying "closed for Walden."Posted by Sean Hegarty at 01:08 AM in the Reflective category | Comments (1)
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