One should not read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden quickly. It’s a book that benefits from a leisurely pace. This book can change how you look at the world and improve your enjoyment of life. Even if you live in a city and like modern technology, as I do.
That’s why for the next year I’m going to blog about Walden — quoting it, commenting on it, amplifying and arguing with it. It’s like a book club that meets four days a week (new posts on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), but the readings are mostly a good deal shorter than this post — just a few minutes out of your day. And though I hope you’ll read the book for yourself, you don’t have to do so to follow these posts. I’ll quote as much as I need to for the post to make sense.
Just remember: Walden isn’t something to finish and check off your list. It’s something live with, a companion. I can think of very few books that stand up to that kind of use, but this is one.
In calling this series “A Year in Walden,” I mean the book and not the place. I’ve never actually been to Massachusetts. Maybe someday I’ll go, but that isn’t really what the book is about. Walden Pond is only a mile and a half outside Concord, where Thoreau lived. He went to Walden to live because it was convenient. “I have traveled much in Concord,” he said, famously. It was important to him to explore his own back yard, and it’s in that spirit that I read his book.
I am not a literary scholar. I head up the publications division at the Nebraska State Historical Society, editing their books and quarterly journal, and I’ve written a few books of my own. This blog is a personal project, unaffiliated with any institution or group, that helps me clarify my thoughts about things I read. I think a good way to get to know something is to try to explain it to somebody else. That’s where you come in. If this project works well you’ll also explain things to me in the comments and we’ll all learn new things and have a good time.
A few misconceptions to clear up before we begin:
1) Walden is not about being a hermit. It’s not about wilderness survival. It’s not about rejecting society or technology. The pond was close to town, and Thoreau walked to town most days that he lived there. He wanted to pursue his writing and his observation of nature, and his little house in the woods gave him just enough solitude, but not too much.
2) Thoreau didn’t move permanently to the woods. He only lived there for a few years before he moved back to town. It was an experiment in simple living. It ran its course and served its purpose, and then he moved on to other things.
3) Yes, Walden is a “classic,” but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. I’ll admit that a number of years ago I tried reading the book on two separate occasions and quit both times without finishing. The fault was mine. I tried to read too fast. I tried to absorb it quickly and go on to other things.
This isn’t that kind of book. It’s a book that seeks to change the way you look at the world, and for this to happen the first thing you’ve got to do is slow down and take it easy. Think of Henry (I’ve gotten so I think of him by his first name — it makes him more human and less of a Classic Author), think of him as some quirky guy you know and you’ve gotten in the habit of stopping to talk with the guy for a few minutes on your way to wherever you’re going on the Internet. He’s an oddball. He’s smart and opinionated, sometimes kind of full of himself, but he can be funny, too, and he has his own way of looking at the world. He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, and you can’t say that about everyone.
What I like best is that he notices things that other people don’t notice. He’s that guy who you talk to for a few minutes and then you go away and, damn if the world doesn’t look just a little bit different to you, a little wilder and deeper and richer.
And yes, sometimes he says things that are difficult to understand — he likes wordplay and puns, and he often exaggerates to make a point (literary types call this ‘hyperbole’), but I’ll give you enough background information to go on, and even tell you what I think he means. Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments.
And that’s about it. Walden tracks the seasons, starting and ending in spring. And so will this series of posts, each of which will have “(Walden [number])” in the title to distinguish it from anything else I post here during that time. We’ll finish up in March 2015.
In working on this project I’m indebted to Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s excellent biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), and to the Thoreau Society’s annotated edition of Walden. But unless I’m quoting someone else, the opinions expressed here are my own.
In the next post I’m just going to jump right into Chapter 1, sketching in biographical details as needed. But if you’d like a brief introduction to Thoreau, I recommend Randall Conrad’s “Henry David Thoreau: Who He Was and Why He Matters,” one of many great resources at The Thoreau Reader.