Friday, July 10, 2009

Henry David Thoreau - Walden

You know how some books, like Joyce's Ulysses, have widely-differing effects on people? Some get through twenty pages and call it junk; others call it the most visionary piece of literature in 100 years; there are even some who have devoted their careers to studying it.

Waldenis not that kind of book. It expresses an ideal inherent in all of us--cutting out the meaningless parts of life in order to live to the fullest. I don't think anyone can read Walden without feeling compelled to follow in Thoreau's footsteps in their own way. While some have criticized the book, calling Thoreau a hypocrite, it is because they believe that somehow he didn't completely live up to the ideals he espoused in the book. (I personally believe that they're wrong, but they're entitled to their own opinions.)

Waldenis the story of an upper-middle class guy who spends two years living in a shack by a pond in the woods, planting beans and writing a book. That's all. It's definitely not Clive Cussler, edge-of-your-seat plot material, but passages like this can't help but excite me:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, front only the essential facts of life, and to 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... 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion"

John Krakauer's recent book Into the Wildtells the story of a middle-class young man who abandons society and possessions for the wilds of the Alaskan Denali, eventually dying alone in an abandoned bus. While it sometimes effectively depicts the romance of reckless, carefree living, the book also hints that we live in a shattered society--a place that for many is broken beyond repair and must be abandoned. I prefer the Thoreauvian view--that we need these experiences to focus ourselves on what we truly want in life, and as practice in learning how to appreciate the world around us, so that we can jump back into our lives with renewed focus and actively shape our society. In effect, Thoreau wants us to live deliberately, smelling the roses all the while.

You could say that Thoreau's experiment was a success. After the Walden experience he became an active abolitionist, prolific ecologist, and had a powerful influence on future political reformists with his essay on Civil Disobedience.

There are many other books elaborating on this theme: Robinson Crusoeand The Swiss Family Robinsonare old classics. As a kid I loved Gary Paulson's books (e.g. Hatchet, The Island) and even The Boxcar Children. I'd be interested to hear of any other books that inspired you similarly.

(P.S. I recently discovered Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. It's a little more than the thrift edition, but a great book to have.)

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