Walden (Henry David Thoreau)

walden-henry-david-thoreau-hardcover-cover-artAah, the passing of time in a natural environment. Usually I’m in too much of a hurry to really look, listen, smell and savour every word or sentence of a book. But when I am able to I’m aware of the little things around me and thinking about a certain pond…Mr Thoreau wasn’t just the original hippie, circa 1845. He was that most annoying beast: a practical hippie. A hippie with the skill to rustle up a meal from whatever he could find, forge or forage in the woods. Or build a glorious shack from a cow pat or the bark of an elm tree.

This classic represents one of the voices of the American Transcendentalist Movement. And yet it seems to stand for much more. “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” This is one of those books I find hard to rate because it is an autobiographical account so scientific in its analysis that at times it drags; so direct in its supposition that like a lecture, it loses you intermittently. But when it reaches these multi-layered phases, when the narration goes to the type of close first-person view, then you almost hear him breath through the pages. This is when things get really interesting:

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” For the most part Thoreau found an evening on his porch reading a book and being one with nature to be just as satisfying as the elaborate parlour games of the Victorian townsfolk, played inside their elaborate homes which cost thousands more dollars to construct and maintain. In fact, that’s mostly what this work is about: detailed yet simple observations about the day-to-day life he experienced during his two years in the woods (truncated to one year in the book for metaphorical purposes).

The main argument for this being a classic seems to be the profound amount of influence it’s had in the 160 years since its publication. It almost single-handedly kick started the social movement known as environmentalism – and the scientific practice known as ecology, in what many claim to be the clearest explanation of Transcendentalism ever written. But, unfortunately, even his fans easily admit that Thoreau was opinionated in a snotty and smug way that has become a lasting trademark of political radicals on both the left and right. He also writes in that overwrought prose style so indicative of the Victorian Age. Especially Victorian writers in America, a country that much more passionately embraced the flowery, almost sickeningly sweet “Genteel” style of writing that fell out of style much sooner over in Europe. I’ll end this review on a non-judgmental note. Find your own cabin in the forest and explore the 352 pages for yourself. Is this wisdom or a waste of time? Depends on the reader.



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