Monday, March 18, 2013

by Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau wrote this infamous book after deciding he was sick and tired of his busy city life in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1845 he left the city and moved to an isolated cabin on Walden Pond. He spent two years there, farming and living off the land. When he returned home he decided to write about his experience and this book is the results.

The book is a mixed bag of literary gems, pontification, wise advice and tedious daily chores. I kept stumbling across so many famous quotes that I didn’t realize originated in this text. I also grew tired of his exhausting catalogue of his daily labors.  

Thoreau was around 30 when he wrote the book and there are bits that are insufferably cocky. I’m younger than he was then, but I can still understand that older generations have wisdom to offer us. At one point he goes on a rant about the fact that just because people have lived longer than him doesn’t make them expert in life and they shouldn’t be trying to give him advice. I wonder if Thoreau ever re-read those words when he was older and regretted his hubris.

Yet there were also lessons that resonated with me 150 years after they were originally written. The main one was the importance he placed on giving yourself time to reflect in solitude. We need to take breaks from society (especially from social media) to put our lives in perspective and make sure we have our priorities straight. That’s even more important today than it was then. Thoreau talks about us filling our lives to the brim and leaving no room for reflection; imagine what he would say if he heard about facebook and twitter and the nonstop stream of television that fills our every waking hour!  

BOTTOM LINE: There are parts of this book I just loved to pieces, and those were absolutely 5 star sections for me. But there are also a lot of bits that talk in detail about what he did each day (fishing, gardening, etc.) and those parts really dragged. It’s definitely worth reading for all of the gems you stumble upon, but don’t expect a quick, light read.

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

“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 actually breathed from all human lips; -- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

**There’s one section which talked about huckleberries. The Huz and I discovered that amazing fruit when we road tripped to Montana last year and we just fell in love with it. I was so excited to stumble across another reference to it.

*Photo is of the replica of Thoreau's cabin the has been built near Walden Pond from here. 


Sandy Nawrot said...

Ha! Sounds like maybe he was a little self-absorbed. Why else would he think we really wanted to hear all those details? Still I think it is great that over a hundred years later, this work is still viable. There are weeks when I do believe we need to shut off the electronics and go for a walk.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books, and I try to read it every spring. I'll probably go through it next month. I'm glad you read it and enjoyed it!

Lemon Tree said...

I'm still reading it half-way. It's quite difficult for me to stay reading, but I like the feeling I get when I read this book. It feels like reading somebody pouring his heart out. Hope I will be able to finish it.

Nikki Steele said...

I have a friend who threw that book across the room after he had been talking about an ax for twenty pages, haha. But I do think he has some great thoughts when it comes to solitude--something that, as I'm getting more into social media, I want to cultivate every once in a while.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I just kept thinking, man this guy had never even heard of TV or the internet and he felt overwhelmed by society. His head would explode now!

Heather - Even though there were sections I struggled with, I know there are other bits I will return to in the future.

Lemon Tree - It felt like a very slow read to me, but there were some sections that I just adored.

Nikki - Bahaha, there were moments when I totally could have done that.

Care said...

Huckleberries? I want to try. Are they pie-worthy?

Brooke said...

Ah, Thoreau. Despite what a pompous ass he could be, his writing is just stunning! Haven't read Walden in quite a while. Definitely need to find myself a copy one of these days.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Care - Oh my gosh yes!!! Seriously, best pie we've ever had. They are a bit like a mix between a blueberry and blackberry, but without the seeds. Our 4 year anniversary is this fall and the traditional gift is fruit/flowers so I'm ordering huckleberries to make a pie. I'll let you know how it goes.

Brooke - Ha, exactly! He had such wise thoughts, but I would have hated being friends with him.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

**Sorry I accidently deleted this comment!**

JaneGS said...

Walden is one of those books I wish I had already read--I think an abridged version might be what I want. I've hesitated reading it because of the tedium you mention, but wanted to read the good parts.

I've visited the replica of the cabin in Concord. It is amazingly small.

Good review of a seminal work.

JaneGS - I would LOVE to visit the replica cabin. I think it's hard to grasp exactly how simple the life he was living really was.

Unknown said...

Dredging up the past here! Great review, I'm halfway through Walden and have similar thoughts to you. There are some passages that just resonate like poetry and others that are pure tedium. I find he gets distracted by his own musings a lot, he'll be describing the cost of the materials or how he obtained them etc before straying aimlessly into the philosophy of earning a living. This can be seen as good or bad, in some ways it reads quite natural like a conversation evolving from one topic to the next but then it can be quite jarring when he springs back to a breakdown of the costs of his dinner.

My only previous Thoreau was 'A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers' which I really enjoyed. It was more focused on describing the journey itself with some incredibly descriptive passages:

"I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made; the weeds at the bottom gently bending down the stream, shaken by the watery wind, still planted where their seeds had sunk, but ere long to die and go down likewise; the shining pebbles, not yet anxious to better their condition, the chips and weeds, and occasional logs and stems of trees, that floated past, fulfilling their fate, were objects of singular interest to me, and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom, and float whither it would bear me."

Difficult to get hold of a physical copy these days!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Tim - I would love to find a copy of that!