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Thoreau on the Sacredness of Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

“Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman asserted in contemplating our responsibilities to the written word, adding: “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

More than a century and a half earlier, another great man of letters extolled the value of libraries with equal wholeheartedness. From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on such matters as the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — comes a beautiful recollection 35-year-old Thoreau penned before sunrise on March 16, 1852:

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

The New York Public Library reading room by Robert Dawson from his photographic love letter to public libraries. Click image for more.

And yet despite his reverence for these traditional bastions of literature, Thoreau sees something insufficiently alive in the physicality of the library. In another entry, having just returned from a quest to find works by fellow naturalists and poets at the Boston and Cambridge libraries, he marvels at the curious disconnect of the proposition and imagines a wholly different home for these books — a place more akin to a sanctuary, imbued with the aliveness the books themselves:

How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, — so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, — and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Chaucer, or Linnæus. I have sometimes imagined a library, i.e. a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city’s square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from ‘Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau remains a secular bible for every thinking, feeling human being. Complement it with Thoreau on the the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

Published April 23, 2015




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