Review: Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Soooooo........yeah. I just rated Walden, one of the great American classics, two stars. That probably says more about me than it does about the book, doesn't it? Don't answer that.
But here's the thing--well, a few things.
1. I'm not generally an abstract ideas kind of person. I like narrative and stories and characters that come to life for me. Walden has none of these. Obviously. The section that I liked best? Thoreau described a pretty epic battle between some tiny red ants and some big bullying black ants. There were sides and protagonists and bravery and heroism, the agony of defeat, and the high cost of victory. I flew through those few pages. And then I got back to ideas and it was like I'd stepped in quicksand again.
2. I found Thoreau to be great in small, quotable chunks. Page after page? He wore on me. I don't care how much he spent on potatoes, I don't care about his theories about measuring bodies of water, I don't care exactly what day the pond thawed each year. And yet this book has produced quotes that most people will recognize.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away."
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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.”
“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
All great stuff, right? I just had a hard time with the in-between parts.
3. I found the Thoreau writing this book to be a bit of an insufferable prick. He had a huge case of the holier-than-thous! His way of living was the only way of living. Everyone else was just a slave to society. He was the only one smart enough to escape the trap. It took me months to read this slim volume, but I do believe at the beginning, he gets the wood for his house by buying a house from a poor Irish family who had nothing else to sell, and then commenting on the dirty state of their children and the house as they drift off through the woods with all their worldly goods on their backs! Say what? And in another incident, he told a poor Irish working man who was working hard to feed his growing family that he needed to stop working for other people and start living off the land. That's all well and good for a single man with no family to feed and a support system to fall back on, but most families can't be fed by just foraging. Hopefully Thoreau in real life was less grating, but I most definitely didn't like the voice this book was written in.
4. I did enjoy studying the Transcendentalists in college. I loved what they had to say. A lot of the specifics have faded with time, but all their ideas about nature and solitude do actually speak to me. I wish more people felt this way in the noisy world we live in. Now Thoreau and Emerson would probably be on medication for some sort of social anxiety disorder. But we all do need time alone to just be, and the best place to do that is outside. I never had to read this entire book for school though. Now I'm disappointed that I feel this way about it.
I am obviously in the minority, but that's my two cents. This is a classic that most people should at least take a crack at. I knew early on that I was going to struggle but I kept pushing through. I should have given up earlier. Some things just aren't meant to be.
Read an excerpt.
Buy Walden; or, Life in the Woods at
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