Cook: Rereading rekindles past for alumnus

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

It was the best grade I ever received on a university essay – 92 on a research paper about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in American Literature class.

I was impressed when I got it during the third year of my BA in English Language and Literature at Western; I guess I still am, since I clearly remember it more than 20 years later. I am far removed from how academic papers are submitted and marked these days, but back in the 1991-92 school year, a typed-and-stapled paper copy of the essay was hand delivered to the professor, and I actually still have it with the professor’s handwritten comments across the bottom and the number 92 circled in red on the title page.

That essay is now a tangible relic from my academic past.

Twenty-two years have passed, and I was about to do something I’ve wanted to do for some time – return to my campus to read Walden.

I made the trek to London, without my wife or kids. I missed them, of course, but I had the pleasant company of Thoreau tucked away in my backpack. My goal was to revive some of the simple moments I enjoyed between classes, like walking through the picturesque campus, relaxing on UC Hill, and catching up on some reading.

Some people would label this as killing time, but in my eyes, I am doing the most productive activity imaginable by filling my mind with the poignant words and ideas of a book.

As Thoreau wrote, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

And it is mostly due to Thoreau that I am here; him, along with many other writers from my literary studies. But mostly Thoreau.

It’s not that I want to re-live my past, I just want to replicate scenes from my academic days and appreciate them, both as something I cherished back then and am fortunate enough to repeat years later with the same pleasant effects.

My walk down University Drive was just as I remember it, back when I was bustling off to Journalism class at Middlesex College, or the dreaded French class four times a week at the top of Brescia Hill. Newer glassy and glistening architecture has been added amongst the grey stone buildings, but I walk by the same trees, cross the same bridge over the same river, and make my way to the same grassy hill to read.

It was not the beautiful campus that initially drew me to Western – I was more interested in the academic reputation – but the charming setting made it even more pleasurable

Back when I used to do this regularly, Engineering and Business students showed disdain for English majors who lounged under trees on sunny days. We were reading books for class, but they were novels, short stories, poems or plays, not heavy duty textbooks thicker than a stack of laptops. It wasn’t my literature degree that started my love of books, but it did nurture it into something that had some substance behind it.

Reading is one of life’s pleasures to which most of us do not assign enough time. We routinely fill our calendars with business meetings and squash games, but fail to schedule blocks of time for curling up with a book to rejuvenate the mind. We all need to connect with our own thoughts, and books have the power to lead us to inner reflection.

Re-reading is a form of remembering, the same way we gather with friends to reminisce about our favourite times together. When a book is read for the first time, it is a stranger, everything about it is new. When it is re-read a second, third or fourth time, we are implying the book is interesting enough for subsequent meetings. Returning obsessively to a certain book, as I seem to do with Walden every so often, is not saying other books are unworthy, but that I want this one to be by my side continuously.

I do not know Thoreau personally, but when I read his words it is like he is speaking to me directly, offering advice that only a friend who knows me can pass on.

It took Thoreau seven years to write his book that was published in 1859. It only took me a few late-night study binges to finish my essay, but I have been re-reading it ever since.

There isn’t much to the book on a surface level – a man living alone in the woods according to his own devices. There is more to it than just reading a story. After all, how exciting is it to read about a man watching ice thaw or tracking his annual vegetable seed budget?

It is the writing style and the message to be kind and attentive to the environment, along with the story, which make the book and the man special. Nature for Thoreau was a sacred place untouched by humans (except by himself, of course). He is responsible for rigorously philosophizing about human’s role in Nature, capitalizing the N in the word, and making Nature an institution onto itself.

I think Thoreau would approve of my setting as I re-read his book, nestled between trees, but also surrounded by buildings that harbour years of academic wisdom. As I can testify from my exercise in re-living and re-reading, Western has maintained that attachment to natural landscapes that inspired me to write an essay worthy of a 92 more than 20 years ago.

Darin Cook, BA’93, is a freelance writer who lives and works in Chatham-Kent.