A thought from Thoreau’s journal, on this day, January 4th, 1860:
A man receives only what he is ready to receive…. We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.
Receiving, here, means a taking in, or a welcoming, as you’d receive a visitor. This is, to my mind, a good argument for self-directed learning, for following one’s nose, so to speak, as we take in best what we want to take in. (Although almost anyone who’s been taught has been haunted by the words of their teachers, which often only make sense in time.) People learn best what and when they want to learn. The first step to thinking, according to my friend Alan, is to want to think in the first place.
Reading, for example: We must be ready to take in a book. I am fond of the saying “It wasn’t for me” to describe a book I didn’t connect with, because it allows that given enough time, it may be for me, and I may be ready to receive it. We are always changing, so we will find new things to receive when re-reading. Thoreau follows up with a specific example, about Aristotle and fishes:
I find (e.g.) in Aristotle something about the spawning of the pout & perch — because I know something about it already & have my attention aroused — but I do not discover till very late that he has made other equally important observations on the spawning of other fishes, because I am not interested in those fishes.
Reading is a part of our education, and education is a drawing out of who we are and what we care about. We meet ourselves in the words of others.
Earlier in his journal, Thoreau is observing the snow, and how the presence of tracks reveals formally undetected animals. So he already has tracking on the mind, and turns the idea on himself: He’s tracking himself in his journal, in his reading, in his observing. (As A.K.R. said, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.”) Part of his work is examining his own chain, adding links, identifying the weak ones, fortifying others…