There is an old Everyman Library edition of Thoreau that has long held a lease on my bookshelf. I bought the book when I was seventeen. I’ve hardly cracked it open in the intervening years, but thumbing through Walden recently I was surprised to see how many different passages I’d underlined.
Frankly, I’m unsure whether all this underlining is proof of adolescent precocity or pretension. At seventeen I probably imagined that marking up books was evidence of my own cleverness, or that it would help me retain and absorb into my own perspective any bits of wisdom a book had to offer. But it turns out that one’s skill with a highlighter and one’s intellectual penetration are entirely unrelated, and we hardly ever get to choose for ourselves what guides and influences our philosophic vision of life. (If I could write that down on a slip of paper and send it back in time for my seventeen-year-old self to discover tucked between the pages of Walden, I might have saved myself an awful lot of trouble.)
Still, it’s a curious exercise to skim through old books like this and see what one considered potent or arresting so many years ago. Clearly, what is memorable for a seventeen-year-old boy isn’t always memorable for a man in his thirties. As I glanced through the pages, I was mildly surprised to realize I had no memory whatsoever of any of the passages I’d once marked in that thick blue ink. I felt like I was reading the book again for the first time: all the sharp judgments Thoreau metes out on his fellow citizens, all that heady introspection, all those dreamy flourishes. One especially dreamy passage still stands out:
A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but breathed from all human lips; -not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but to be carved out of the breath of life itself.
“Choicest of relics” – The religious resonance of the term calls to mind lines of worshipers huddled outside stone cathedrals waiting to kiss the bones of saints and beg their aid. For the believer, relics communicate power, an irreducible personhood, and a special relationship to the divine. But whereas a saint’s famous book might be considered a relic in autograph, that status does not extend to the printed and disseminated word. Reprints and translations don’t count.
They count for Thoreau. No doubt it’s a function of his crypto-Protestantism, his iconoclasm, his essential American-ness. Thoreau finds in the written word a relic democratic and universal, capable, like a splinter of the True Cross, of infinite multiplication – and yet conformable to every heart, the simultaneous and legitimate possession of a million persons uniquely.
Thoreau’s own book, then, becomes a little reliquary; the words inside are his bones, persisting long after the rest of him has rotted away. Is it worth the little acts of veneration my ink marks represent? As a good Transcendentalist, Thoreau probably wouldn’t claim any special status for his own relics; by his own rules every word must have an equal relationship to the divine.