Walden

Henry David Thoreau wrote the majority of this non-fiction piece while he lived in the woods by Walden pond from 1845-1847. He comments on everything from economics and societal values to the rabbits living underneath his house. Thoreau chose to live on the outskirts of his hometown Concord in order to test how simply he could live. He theorized that the key to happiness was not wealth or ambition, but simplicity. Caring too much about artificial objects and values just makes people stressed and unhappy. So, he built himself a small, plain cabin and lived in the woods by himself, relying on nature to keep him alive. The main themes of this book are the glorification of nature and the backwardness of society.

Thoreau writes beautifully. His descriptions of the pond and forest made me so excited that I dropped the book and started looking for a way to squeeze a visit to Walden pond into my schedule for this summer. (I will probably have to wait until next summer. Ah well. Here’s a link, if you are interested: http://www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/walden/.) His ideas intrigued me as well; I am a bit ambitious myself (read “a bit” as “extremely”) and Walden made me wonder if I am over-exerting myself, or if my goals are too crazy. Although I don’t think I could live alone in the woods for two years, I could definitely afford to cut back a bit. (Yet at the same time, he says: “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”) His ridicule of fashion, slavery, taxes, fishing and more are interesting and worth the read, even if you don’t always agree with him.

This book does take a long time to work through. Although it is fairly short, it throws a number of complex ideas out and has diction corresponding to its 19th-century authorship. Usually this is not a problem for me (since I love literature from the 1800s and am now somewhat accustomed to it) but Walden is my summer reading assignment so I had to take notes on argument and technique and such, which slowed me down. I enjoyed the book, but reading took me longer than I would have liked. (At the end of the summer I am going to reread, and may come back and make more comments on the pace of the novel without the note-taking factor.)

Walden is an excellent, intellectual read. I would definitely recommend this to an older audience that is already familiar with the writing style of the 1800s. Some background information from various cultures (especially those of ancient Greece and Rome) would help, since he makes many allusions, and basic knowledge of Latin could be useful as well (although most often when he breaks off into other languages, he comes back to translate).

UPDATE: As I thought, reading Walden without taking notes was much less time-consuming and easier to pay attention to. It is still a thick text, but being able to focus on it without looking away to jot comments was definitely more satisfying.

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