Sunday, December 24, 2017

Walden (1854)

It didn't take me long to remember why I had never been able to make it all the way through Walden before—it's an odd book, with a strange premise, and many boring digressions. "Boring"—there I said it. Henry David Thoreau is arguably America's first hippie, with as many evident connections to Kwai Chang Caine as to the Jacks Kerouac and London, not to mention Ralph Waldo Emerson and Unitarianism. To me Thoreau is one of our most sensible writers, with an important point of view. People should read him. He is eminently quotable, in particular, and without doubt Walden bears most of the best of these nuggets (remembering that Thoreau died young, at 44). Yet a certain sad tale is told by the highlighting in the free kindle version I slogged through recently. Early on, in the first chapter, I saw that 2,707 people had highlighted "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." On the same page, I saw that 1,938 people had highlighted: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to love. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." After that, however, all these many hundreds of people stopped highlighting. Knowing as I do better now how deadly soporific that first chapter is, I suspect the obvious. They stopped reading. As it happens, my own highlighting was fixated on things like the word "flute." At one point, for example, we find Thoreau reminiscing by the side of Walden Pond: "When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water." Yes, so he's sitting there playing a flute. Have you seen episodes of the old Kung Fu TV show lately? I find I have seized on the flute, and some notion of going about barefoot much of the time, as certain hippie totems. But of course there's much more going on beyond the caricatures in Walden. Thoreau's most potent influence—his best idea—was in his profound rejection of the conventional, which in the US has always meant more generally the commercial. Thoreau may be as close as European Americans have had to a soul walking the earth, uncommonly practical, enraptured with capital-N Nature on many levels, and a stone geek on sundry intellectual matters such as biology or Hinduism. His experiment involved many conditions that barely obtain today or that were obscured for the sake of the experiment (some interesting perspective in this New Yorker story from earlier this year). But he was obviously smart, resourceful, and humanitarian. There are many gems of passages in Walden too, though I estimate the proportion at about 30% to the rest. Plan to be patient.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Mr. Independent took his laundry home for his mother to wash.

  2. Haha, in the best hippie tradition!

  3. I like the romantic view of nature, even in hippies, up against the otherwise savage disregard for it in most of modernity. But I remember this as a terrible slog, too. I do recall it making me think ab how long I might last if the grocery stores shut down? I'm thinkin' ab a month, tops.