Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Walden - Henry David Thoreau

"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof." (p. 6)
Walden is a well known book. Just about everyone knows that it is about some guy who lived in the woods, but how many people can accurately tell you what his message was? A summary, or even a comprehensive review, does not suffice. People need to read Thoreau's actual words to get the full and complete picture. McKibben provides an outstanding introduction to this version of Thoreau's classic which points out why this book is still important for people entering the 21st Century. The times have changed but many aspects of the message are as applicable today--if not more so--as ever.

McKibben (correctly IMO) identifies the two questions Thoreau presents the reader: How much is enough? and How do I know what I want? Thoreau doesn't pretend to answer these questions for the reader. He doesn't even necessarily want the reader to follow his lifestyle. Rather, like Emerson, he wants to get the reader to at least think through some of the basic questions of life that few stop to think about.

Interestingly, McKibben points out in the very first footnote he provides in Walden that "you will get very little from Walden if you read it hunting for contradictions". Although the contradictions are abundant, I think they should be hunted for or at least acknowledged by any reader. Thoreau included the contradictions on purpose to illustrate a major theme of the book--a diversity of opinions and ideas should be explored. Contradictions are only a problem if you are arguing that both of the items are true. Instead, Thoreau uses them to provoke thoughtfulness and open-mindedness. He would have probably agreed with Martin Wells when Wells said that "principles are as often as not an excuse to stop thinking". Look at the issues from various vantage points is Thoreau's message.

For about the first half of the book, Thoreau questions the lifestyles people choose. The remainder is largely filled with nature writing that has a strong philosophical undertone. During this section you almost want to read most things twice--once with your nature-lover's cap on and once trying to figure out the metaphor Thoreau may be trying to get across.

In questioning the lives of others the reader is forced to wonder if they have chosen the kind of life that will really offer them happiness. Are they merely living a career or some other narrowly focused routine or is a worthwhile life being lived? Thoreau wonders if the truly valuable elements of life are being taken advantage of if a person isn't living simply. If a person is so caught up in working or never having enough then life, its wonders, and satisfaction are difficult to obtain. As he states near the very beginning (p. 4), "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them." It is doubtful that Thoreau would own a car if he was around now, but if he did it would likely have a bumper sticker on it that says, "He who dies with the most toys loses". The chase is better than the catch even though people don't seem to understand this and instead live from one unsatisfying catch to the next. Thoreau describes the wonder of this chase and the disappointment of the catch via a thought-provoking story on pages 261-2.

Thoreau encourages a deeper look at life. Too many are content with the surface, with going along with the flow, and merely following tradition. Thoreau wants us to look not at the "sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!" (p. 15) The descriptions of Walden Pond later in the book show by example that Thoreau was able to observe things on the pond that no casual observer would have the privilege of experiencing.

I highly recommend this classic to any and all thinkers, nature lovers, and people who aren't satisfied with their life and need something to spark them in a new direction.

"In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." (p. 14)
"Bill McKibben gives us Thoreau's Walden as the gospel of the present moment, as a necessary book because it is useful right now. Read this book. Read it again if you have to. It will make your life better."
-- Robert D. Richardson, Jr., author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire, winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

Bill McKibben is author of The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information. He lives with his family in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.

A few quotes...

"When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men will at length establish their lives on that basis." (p. 9)

"I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust." (p. 33)

"men have become the tools of their tools." (p. 34)

"[Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end." (p. 54)

"Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East,--to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them,--who were above such trifling." (p. 54)

"...my greatest skill has been to want but little..." (p. 64)

"...to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely;" (p. 66)

"I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead." (p. 66)

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve." (p. 70)

"Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character. " (p. 196)

"You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns." (p. 215)

"Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought." (p. 300)