Winter evenings by the wood stove present just the right opportunity for revisiting a classic book. And for anyone who studies and writes about natural history, as I do, few titles are more foundational than Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It’s the sort of text that gets quoted more than read, however, and I couldn’t recall opening my copy since college. So when I returned to it recently, the experience held a few surprises. I immediately recognized the author’s keen observational skills, and his knack for a deft turn of phrase, but I hadn’t remembered how often his self-confidence bordered on self-congratulation. (If Thoreau’s opinions sounded half as smug in person, then his solitude may not have been entirely self-inflicted!) The most unexpected and pleasing revelation, however, came in the form of an entire chapter devoted to the importance of reading.
Thoreau structured his life at Walden Pond around the principle of simplicity, yet always had room in his spare little cabin for books. He favored the classics, and kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad on his table at all times, noting that Alexander the Great had done much the same thing, even on expeditions. Thoreau praised the “oldest and best” books as oracles and thought everyone should learn to read them as he did– in Greek and Latin. But what really caught my attention were his comments on the deep connection between reading and writing. His mornings at Walden typically alternated between the two, and he believed that both acts required a similar level of effort and commitment. “To read well,” he wrote, “. . . requires a training such as the athletes underwent.” With few obligations beyond his bean field, Thoreau could afford to be an athletic reader. But even for those of us who get to it only at the end of the day, with our feet up beside the fire, his words are a reminder that reading, like writing, is never passive. As endpoints along a single storytelling continuum, reading and writing cannot be entirely disentangled, nor should they be. After all, what writer didn’t come to their craft through a love of books? And where is the reader who is not inherently a lover of language?
If Thoreau was correct, then awards for writing have a lot of reading in them too. That makes an award bestowed by booksellers particularly fitting, since bookstores are an indispensable hub where these activities come together. All of us who love words gather there to seek them, and to seek out one another, encountering new ideas and experiences as well as the treasured volumes that keep our respective cabins well stocked. Like libraries, bookstores reveal how reading and writing belong to the same creative process, and while they may take place while we are alone, they also bring us together. I am thrilled to receive a 2019 Pacific Northwest Book Award, and also quite grateful, because it feels very much like an honor rooted in this community of word lovers. And even Thoreau knew the value of friends and fellows. In addition to plenty of books, his hut always contained three chairs: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”