One of the great books of American letters and a masterpiece of reflective philosophizing. Accounts of Thoreau's daily life on the shores of Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts, are interwoven with musings on the virtues of self-reliance and individual freedom, on society, government, and other topics.
He stayed there for two years - a self-imposed "exile" - leaving the bustling city behind, dedicated to a life of simplicity and solitude. This book is an exploration of his experiences and his many thoughts on life in general. It's more relevant than ever - thinking how much stress and unnecessary things that fill our lives and gives us constant worries.
Rereading his book I feel much more alive again. It's brimming with curiosity, enthusiasm, individuality and the wish 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".
A mixture of philosophy, observations about nature, wildlife and crops, guidance on how to live life to the fullest, not following the crowd but being yourself, living in the present. This book has so much to offer - and completely deserves it's status as some of the finest american literature ever.
Thoreau's unusual attention to ordinary things in life fills me with joy - just the pleasure he gains from a cold bath in the lake each morning and his way of putting it in a wider context of living is remarkable. As with so many other things. From the food on his table, to the birds in the air. Nothing escapes his keen eye for details we so often just ignore.
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.
The first time I read Walden, I was twenty-three years old, about to leave the relatively bucolic small cities of Maine and take up residence in New York City. I remember taking Thoreau's crochety dismissals of society as warnings. Even in Manhattan, I thought, I will try to march to the sound of my own drummer. (Easier said than done; in the end, the antlike denizens of New York marched right over me.)
This time through the book, I paced myself. Reading Thoreau is an exhausting business. His prose is very much like poetry: highly compressed, highly allusive, and very closely observed. He combines the precision of the naturalist with the airy philosophizing of a sage. This melange is not always a success, but when it does work, the effect is spectacular.
Thoreau is like Whitman in that he contains multitudes and contradicts himself and does not care. He is unlike Whitman in that he rejects much of humanity instead of embracing all of it. He doesn't have a philosophy so much as a series of attitudes and tendencies. Walden doesn't really make a coherent argument, but it's a beautiful tapestry. Thoreau did not set out to make a series of points and back them up; he set out to explore, and to set down his contradictory thoughts as clearly as possible. In the end, his greatest skill was as a maker of sentences like diamonds: compressed to a great hardness, clear as water, and brilliant.
Thoreau now seems to me like Ralph Waldo Emerson with some of the mist removed from his brain. Both men sang vaguely of the Infinite, but Thoreau also knew how to grow beans. I prefer my sages to have at least one foot on the ground.
The book follow his journey of essentially self discovery, and his observations of life during this period - including building himself a cabin, farming and reading/books amongst other things.
It really is quite an interesting glimpse into not only the past, but also one mans views of the world. I don't agree with all his positions (like meat not being worth the effort to hunt/obtain), but I certainly do agree that a simpler life can be a more rewarding life. I certainly also would go build myself a cabin on the shores of a lake and live a simple life if such a thing were possible in this day and age but alas, even if buys such a piece of land you still can't build such a cabin thanks to local government rules - how the world has changed in a mere 200 years!
I will end this review with a paragraph from the end of the book: "However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode."
I had considered occasionally what it would be like, to live in the country alone, bucolic landscapes and only the sounds of wildlife, in the manner of these ecologically minded romantics such as Thorea, and decided to conduct the social experiment of reading one of their books for a time.
Here is a summary of my expenses during this time:
Walden ebook, from project gutenberg: $0.00
In discussion with a learned friend, on one of my sojourns from reading, for I am considered by others as a hermit, we felt perhaps that many of these texts, if one had already received their rustic message, actually reading them with their quaint style was not really necessary.
That said, there was some, altogether rustic, charm in the 19th century style and I do not regret reading the book and its plenitude of subordinate clauses; but I don't think it's for everyone.
Here is a summary of Thoreau's main points:
Make your own stuff and it will be super great
Patch your clothes when they get holes, don't buy new stuff.
Grow your own food
Acquire a plot of land to live on by squatting on your friend's land and build a log cabin on it.
Everyone should learn Ancient Greek and Latin and read The Illiad and The Odyssey
Vegetarianism is great and if you have any soul you'll stop eating the meats
Being a hunter is almost as good as being a vegetarian and by being a hunter you'll eventually turn into a vegetarian
Give your child a gun so it can hunt things and then become a vegetarian
Being poor is SO GREAT and way better than being rich
Be passive aggressive to your visitors so they won't stay too long
Taxes are bad, so is the government
This book is very applicable today, and I might even venture to say moreso than even at the time it was written. In the book Thoreau complains about how trains are making life too fast. What would he think of people who cannot even go to the grocery store without wearing a Bluetooth? What would he even think of a giant grocery store?
Thoreau mentioned many of his colleagues whom came to his cottage or who he met during his walks. Although many of them weren't rich or worldly he still admired many for their straightforward approach to life. He was very critical of the modern cosmopolitan.
The author gives a very plain look to doing things well. Almost too plain in my eyes since in the book nowhere does he mention what I believe is a very important aspect to life: responsibility to others. Be that as it may, his advice is still sound and pleasing to hear.
My favorite portions of the book were related to his thoughts about lifestyle and reading. The concluding chapter is excellent as a summary of his beliefs in case one doesn't want to read through some of the tedious details in his later chapters (ie: size of ponds and how thick ice freezes in certain areas). I would happy recommend this book but it not so much an easy read anymore since the style is quite old-fashioned and I believe one could get almost as much out of reading half the book as the whole thing. If one is interested in reading a book that stands the test of time in the topics of simple and rewarding living this would be a great choice.
He then "lived a solitary life in the woods," except he was only about a mile from his friend Emerson's house, so whenever he got tired of living alone, he sauntered over and had dinner.
Much of the romance of "simple" living is only possible because the people romanticizing about it are surrounded by a first world culture they are dependent on. Those who don't acknowledge this are missing one of the most important facts we need to deal with on an over-populated, climatically unstable planet. Read this critically or give it a miss.
I don't agree with all of his philosophy, and some of his notions are clearly dated, but I agree with his overall concept - we have too much extraneous stuff in our lives, and these things only serve to complicate it. We should live "deliberately," to quote Thoreau. We need to live our life the way we want to, not let things happen to us, not to collect belongings without thinking about how they will affect our life.
I feel guilty for not liking this. I managed to avoid reading this during school, but it still seems like one of those books that high schoolers are forced to read, yet never appreciate. SIt always embarrasses me to agree with the high schoolers, but I can't help but find Walden vastly overrated, both as a book, and as an exploration of the American character.
Certainly, there were lines, ideas, and passages that I enjoyed, and I'm not necessarily willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater just because the narrator is such a self-righteous prick. Maybe it's just because of what I've been reading recently, but it was hard to get past the flimsy nature of the man's entire worldview. A lot of my recent books have revolved around the theme of bullshit, and I can't say that I'm willing to exclude this one. Thoreau's pronouncements sound pretty enough, in the same way that the ramblings of a stoner can seem to uncover hidden truths, but after a while, context takes over. The difference between his self-perception and reality is just too wide to take him seriously.
These are the essential facts surrounding Walden;
-One day Henry David Thoreau borrowed his neighbours axe and walked out into the woods.
-Once there we made himself a home and planted himself some crops. -He spent his days working and his night times reading or walking. -He largely lived in solitude. He paid no taxes.
-During and after his time their he composed 'Walden'
This book is a powerful narrative on life which should be read by one and all. It is the most revolutionary book of its time and opens up the philosophies of Emerson and his contemporaries. Thoreau dares to do what others only think or dream of.
Reading this book put me in a very relaxed, calm state. Reflective and undisturbed, easy to think or not think and just watch the natural world going about its business. Thoreau is wonderful and I highly recommend this book. I know it is one I will frequently re-read.
I'm found a lot of the description to be nice (especially some of the descriptions of animals that made me smile), but I felt myself wanting to be there to see and experience for myself instead of reading Thoreau's often highly individualized descriptions.
Some parts of this book really stood out to me, like the image of millions of ants battling to the death enveloping Thoreau's cottage. I might try to read this again someday, but in smaller bits, taking the time to appreciate each new idea and image. Maybe I'll like it better a few years from now.
I think it is very interesting to read the reviews and notice that the vast majority of the bad reviews are coming from the young, mainly teenagers who were made to read this in school. The vast majority of the good reviews are coming from the older and the more wizened.
I think the youth of today are just so totally enamored with technology and what's cool and popular. I know I was when I was 17. But then you grow older and hopefully more wise, you live life a little and you no longer care about what's cool or what's popular, you are no longer so enamored with technology and you begin to see how technology is actually killing us. You have some perspective to temper the youthful idealism.
I just loved everything about this book, but I never read it until my 30's. If I had read it in my teens, I probably would have thought it pretty stupid.
I think Thoreau was a genius, both with words and how he lived his life. He did not live on Walden Pond his entire life, by the way. Walden pond was an experiment, not so much a way of life. His time there was meant to show people how superfluous most of our lives are, that it can be simplified, to our soul's benefit, not to mention the benefit of our fellow human beings and the world at large.
He was not a stupid man, he was educated at Harvard. He knew that his way was not the way everyone could or would live. He was not advocating a new social order. He was merely trying to prove a point, that people's lives are way too complicated.
It has been said that Thoreau was the anti-Benjamin Franklin. Realize that even in his day, Thoreau was ridiculed. It is no surprise that he would be ridiculed today, mainly by those who just simply could not live without their iPods.
I read Walden as an ideal and it made me sad. I would love to live my life in the way he did on Walden Pond, but I'm just not so sure how possible it is to live that way in today's world or even how desirable. There has to be a happy medium. You don't have to run out and live as a hermit in order to be able to appreciate Thoreau. There is beauty in the middle way, one can learn to make small changes in their lives, to try and live more simply, as many today are trying to do, to lighten our footprint on this earth, for the betterment of all.
I do believe that people's lives are too complicated, that they can't see the forest for the trees,that their lives are only about making more money so they can buy more things. They have lost their way in the world, they have forgotten, if they even even knew, what life is about.
But running out to live by yourself is not the solution either. I am reminded of the story of Christopher McCandless, whose story was made into the movie Into the Wild. He learned too late that true happiness is not real unless shared. That without love, life is meaningless. And THAT is the reason that living on Walden Pond by yourself is not the answer. We are here on this earth for each other, to love. Without love, life is meaningless.
To live on Walden Pond by yourself for a period of time, to find yourself, or to prove a point, is all well and good, but as a permanent way of life, it's not utopia.
And Thoreau knew this, after his time in the woods, he went back to civilization, but he never lost his soul and he knew how the soul was refreshed... with love, with learning, and with nature.
I enjoyed somewhat less the lengthy self-sufficiency descriptions, which became a bit repetitive, and the occasional lapse into slightly tiresome sermonising. It's worth remembering that Thoreau's isolation was his choice of lifestyle; in his words "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". In fact he lived near enough to Concord to walk there regularly and had frequent contact with people there and visitors to his hut.
The book is very well written, with a precise use of language normal for the time in which it was written; Thoreau has a rich understanding of plant and animal life and the ebb and flow of the seasons during his time in the woods. His writing is also rich in classical allusions (" For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed"), that he generally assumes his readers will understand, quite a common feature of 19th literature.
This edition also includes the author's essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience", which describes his libertarian philosophy that rejects government in principle as an oppressive force. He embraces the nostrum "That government is best which governs least"; and would like to see this taken to its natural conclusion that "That government is best which governs not at all". His main reason for this is the US government's support for the institution and practice of slavery, which he considers provides a justification for those concerned with true justice to oppose the government, including through the use of force if necessary. At the same time, his philosophical antipathy to the whole notion of government (though he makes certain pragmatic concessions to it) allows him to concede no place at all for a liberal government as a potential force for good in the social arena. Interesting stuff, even if his philosophy seems too simplistic to me.
It is alone in nature away from the clutter of the world that we can look inward; and it really shows in this book. I like the way he mixes the mundane with the transcendental. His experiments in simple living still have merit in our ever more materialistic culture.
Later, Gandhi had read and was influenced by Thoreau. Later still, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had read and was influenced by Gandhi. Still yet later, kdis in Tiananmen Square, 1989, were quoting Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. So this book is an important genome in the spiral DNA-helix, between east and west. A treasure.
I was also fascinated by Thoreau's philosophy. I felt a kinship with him across time and space. I particularily loved the passages he wrote about being solitary. He expressed this better than anything I have ever read before.
He was radical in his day to have avoided taxes as a protest to his government and to have helped run-away slaves as they passed through.
He was a naturalist, essayist, environmentalist, and philosopher. I wish I could have known him.