Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book 121: Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

One of the things I love about this project is that it is getting me to think harder about why I read and how I read. I have challenged my way through a lot of books I haven't been to excited about, not because I had to finish them, but because I wanted to. I want to seek out what makes literature exciting, worthwhile, and cherished.

My experience with Walden is a perfect example of that. I was not the biggest fan of "Civil Disobedience," so I was wary of giving Thoreau's longer work a try. And at first, I wasn't a fan of this piece either.

When I finished Walden, I again irritated by what I perceived to be Thoreau's arrogance and stupidity. I mean really, are you being self-sufficient when you aren't really removed from society? I don't think so. Being able to go buy your groceries does not equate to flying solo in nature.

But, the more I thought about the book, the more I realized that I liked huge parts of it. And while I didn't understand Thoreau, I understood what he was trying to say and why it was important. That is proof enough that I have learned a great deal from this reading project.

On to discussing Walden...

Basically, Thoreau decided to take time away from society and its restrictions and rules to live on his own in a cabin by Walden pond. The book Walden focuses on the time he spent away from society. It speaks about Thoreau's ideas on various subjects; namely he discusses economy, reading, solitude, the reasons why he tackled this project, and many others.

The book is divided into sections based on topic and he explains and expresses his ideas.

So let me talk about what didn't work for me. While I understand the ideas and theory behind the idea of transcendentalism, seeing it in action makes me scratch my head. I like that the theory focuses on individual, self exploration. As evidenced by what I do here, you can see that I am all about exploring what is important to me and hopefully using that for the benefit of those I come in contact with.

But, what irks me about Thoreau is this overarching feeling of arrogance I get from his writing. Like I said, I get and understand the idea of what he is speaking about, but I don't like being told what I should be doing. I don't like the fact that Thoreau believes his way of thinking is the right and correct way, and that if you don't agree with his ideas, you're an idiot.

No, Mr. Thoreau, you do not need to lecture the masses on your ideas in an arrogant manner to make them understandable to the common person. It is that "tone" that bothers me throughout Walden and what drove me away from truly enjoying "Civil Disobedience."

So, what did I like?

All of Thoreau's ideas.

Okay, I know that is incredibly broad, but unlike "Civil Disobedience," the ideas here really spoke to me. I could spend hours writing about each of the topics he discussed, but I mainly want to discuss the two things that spoke to me most, and they happen to come from very early on in the book.

The first was his chapter on reading. I marked more passages in this short chapter than the rest of the book combined. I really felt like Thoreau understood the importance of reading for personal growth! It made my heart so happy to see his little gems of wisdom;

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem," (81).

Oh yes! Thoreau gets me there. I agree that reading is truly an exercise, and as I continue to move forward in my project list, I am reading not only for fun and amusement, but also for the betterment of myself.

"Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations," (82).

Who doesn't agree that books hold everything? Reading this made me also think about the changes our world is undergoing, with an influx of ereaders, TV shows stealing reading time, and less and less kids feeling the urge to escape with a book. I will never forget telling my sophomores this year about their reading assignment for the quarter and having one of them tell me that books were for old people. THEIR generation didn't need to read because they have the internet at their fingertips. I wonder how Thoreau would have reacted to that statement-to know that reading is no longer seen as a privilege or a way for families to come together at night, but as punishment and torture.

I think Thoreau's heart would break, just as mine did.

The other section I really enjoyed was the second, called "Where I lived and what I lived for." It is in this passage that we really get to know Thoreau's heart. He discusses his purpose in going to the woods and living alone, isolated from society;

"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," (72).

This passage, more than any other, really spoke to me. I actually had to set the book aside after reading this. More than anything else I've read in the last few months, this connected directly to what I feel I am doing here and the direction my life is headed. It can't be any surprise to those of you who read my blog regularly to know that I have been in a low, low place for months. It has been a battle to remind myself constantly of what I do have and what I AM accomplishing.

And Thoreau spoke to that in this passage; "...and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." I know what he means. I am living what he means, and because of this single passage, I feel like I truly understand what Thoreau was trying to do.

Because more than anything else, these Transcendentalists were trying to forge a place for themselves in the midst of society. By reflecting on themselves and who they were, they were attempting to make the world around them better, one small conversation or letter at a time.

And I hope, that by pushing through, reflecting on myself, and continuing to share my thoughts and ideas, that I do the same. And that might not happen in a physical classroom, but I can continue to push on as a person and help those I come in contact with.

Please visit this post to see more info on Transcendentalist Month and posts by other bloggers.


  1. I'm only about one-third of the way through this, but I LOVED "Reading." I copied so many quotes down, I began to wonder if I was just copying out the entire chapter! (And he very nearly had me convinced I should learn some Greek before I came to my senses, haha!)

    One thing I'm really struggling with in Walden is whether Thoreau actually means for EVERYONE to follow his path or whether he's directing his words to a more narrow group of people. Reading over Nicki's post (Every Book and Cranny), I'm leaning towards to latter, but he definitely comes across as "do as I say" or a "holier than thou" sometimes.

  2. We seem to have had similar impressions of this, but his ARROGANCE made me overall dislike the book. I too really enjoy the reading chapter. I ran in to it a year ago in a volume of essays I have and liked it then too. And I do like the ideas of living life deliberately. Overall, though, I really disliked this book -- and Thoreau himself.

  3. I have a weird relationship to this book. I obsessed over it when I read it in 2009, but for some reason when I think back on it and think I didn't like it. Not sure what's going on there. I think I realized afterward how arrogant he was and I was put off by it. I realized that I, as a woman who derives a lot of fulfilment from personal relationships, and who wants to have a family and children, could NEVER live the kind of life Thoreau thinks everyone should live. And that kind of bothered me.

    Not to mention the fact that Thoreau totally still depended on society when he claimed he didn't.

  4. I was looking forward to reading this one when I was an undergrad, but when I did, I was FREAKIN' ANGRY. I also found him arrogant, but I also thought he was a bit of a sham. He lived close enough to town to walk up for a paper, and the part where he wanted to kill and eat a badger or something that ran across his path just threw me over the edge.

    In short, I think I like the idea of Walden much better than the actual book. Sadly. :(

  5. I like the appreciation of ideas even as the man annoys. I really should read this one day.

  6. It sounds like an interesting book. Reminds me a little of La Resistencia (The Resistance) by Ernesto Sábato (wonderful book I HIGHLY recommend). I love the ideas you wrote about- I might have to give this book a chance.

  7. I totally know what you mean about Thoreau's arrogance turning you off..."Civil Disobedience" made me crazy, and WALDEN mostly did too, although I liked bits of it. Small bits. :)

  8. I HATED the first chapter of Walden (was it called "Economy"?) and because of it, it took me 3 tries to get through the book, but I really liked the rest of it once I got past that first long chapter. I had to read it for a college class and since I'd failed twice before, I tried a different tactic the third time. I bought a teeny tiny edition (I think from Shambala Editions) that was about 2 inches by an inch and a half. Not only could I really carry it everywhere, but I felt like I was making a lot of progress quickly, which was the opposite experience I had trying to read it from the Norton Anthology of American Literature.

  9. Oh! I love how you compare what you're doing here on your blog (personal experimentation) with Thoreau's experiment!! Ah, it makes me want to call my blog Walden's Pond...

    (Transgressing while I sigh with pleasure.)

    Anyway, I absolutely LOVE this book. I still have 50 pages to read because I'm stalling. I can't bear the idea I'll be finished with the book, when I finish. I don't find Thoreau at all arrogant. To me he's decisive and passionate and deep and concerned about the world -- and angry at the waste and cruelness he sees in the world. To me he's writing as one who knows what he thinks and doesn't mind saying so.

    I'll be returning again and again to this book. (I'll say more about my perspective on the book in my post later in the week!) :)

    I love the final two paragraphs in this post. Yes, yes! This is what I love about your blog. I know it's what you're doing, and why, and I so respect it.

  10. Walden figured prominently in another book I recently read. Maybe I should pick it up sometime.

  11. All the Transcendentalists (and writers of almost every school/type at the time) tend to come across as arrogant, self-righteous, or demanding. This is because almost all published work, pre-"pop fiction" tended to be not just fiction, but political or philosophical statements. Writers were positing ideas and attempting to coax readers into thinking the way they did.

    It wasn't just the essayists, either. Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thackeray, among other novelists, were just as "guilty" of this. It was a different literary world (not that this doesn't happen today - it certainly does, but most readers these days read genre fiction for enjoyment, rather than statement pieces).

    Great work, Allie!