Tuesday, August 4, 2009
© 1854 Henry David Thoreau
I remember staring up at Walden on my high school library's bookshelf, wondering if I should check it out. I knew it was famous: it was one of those books I'd heard of in the light of being a classic. I didn't check it out, but some years later I decided to try Thoreau out based on his WikiQuote page and found him to be enjoyable and exceedingly thought-provoking. Having read his essay on civil disobedience and portions of his journals, I decided this past week to read the work for which he may be best-known: Walden.
Walden is Thoreau's account of his first year spent living at Walden Pond, just outside of Concord. From what I've read, Thoreau seemed ill at ease living in society -- which to him is unnatural, with people obsessing over trivial matters and ignoring the more important ones, like the cultivation of the inner spirit. In order to think about things and to pursue a life of simple living -- in which he was able to live off of six weeks' labor -- he travelled into the woods and began making a home for himself. Although I had expected social criticism, philosophical musings, and a journalistic account, I was not expecting the latter to dominate the former. The bulk of his criticism is contained within the opening chapters, in which he explains why he left. Although musings (mostly related to transcendentalism) are woven throughout, the book is mostly a straightforward account of his life spent in the woods. He writes about building his home, seeing the seasons changes, and working in his bean-field. A friend warned me that Thoreau spent a lot of time writing about the details of his life -- details like the width between lines of his bean crop -- but I didn't expect quite so much. Then again, based on such a warning I might have focused more on the details when they occurred.
Thoreau is poetic at times, and quotes often from the Hindu scriptures as well as from his own tradition's text of the bible. The book is littered with 19th century references (helpfully explained by my book's editor), giving the impression that Thoreau is a very well-read man. This might be emblematic of the print culture that Neil Postman and Susan Jacoby are so enamored of, or it may point to the fact that Thoreau delighted in gleaning wisdom and inspiration from the products of the human spirit. He saw philosophy as using wisdom to live one's life well. His style has the vague formality you might expect of 19th-century work.
I suspect the book may have been spoiled for me by his journals: first-time readers to Thoreau may find it more enjoyable than I did. I didn't dislike reading it, but it didn't grip me the way I expected Thoreau to. He has a droll wit about him: at times he seems like a man who could fascinate you with his ramblings at the same time he annoys you by constantly complaining. Although I didn't expect it -- but should have -- is that this book offers a look into a different time -- a time in which people come to Walden Pond to cut blocks out of ice to use in icehouses. (The first three or four times Thoreau mentioned ice-cutters, I thought they were cutting holes in the ice to fish. Only later did it occur to me that this is the mid-19th century and people use icehouses for refrigeration.)
Although the details could get wearisome at times, I am glad I read it and would like to discuss it further with people who have likewise read it.