Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why I Like Walden

A few days ago, I read an excellent WriteAtHome blog about literature courses for teens. One of the items on the book list was “Excerpts from Walden by Thoreau.” In the comments, a couple different people mentioned that they didn’t like Walden. Since I’m currently reading Walden for the second time, it made me think about why I do like it.

Walden is one of the great transcendentalist works of the nineteenth century. The author, Thoreau, spent about two years on the shores of Walden Pond in Connecticut, building his own house and making a living on the small patch of crops he could grow. It is not a survival manual, nor is it intended to be. He walked into town regularly (which was only a couple miles away), bought and traded supplies, welcomed guests, chatted with woodsmen, and generally stayed a member of his community. He wasn’t surviving— he was seeking a simpler lifestyle.

The book tells a lot about his methods (how he built a house, how he grew crops, how he entertained guests), but it mostly focuses on his thoughts about nature, farming, cities, woodlands, commerce, fashion, theology, social conventions, and anything else he cares to ramble about. Living in the woods is a framework for his thoughts, and it keeps the readers grounded in what might otherwise be a mishmash of random thoughts.

Fragrance Lake, Bellingham, Washington. Close enough.
So, why do I like it? I could harp on its literary features: his description is unparalleled, his characterization vivid, and his sociological tangents quite an adventure. But the main reason I like Walden is that Thoreau has such a different point of view than I do— and he presents it with a fiercely innocent arrogance that I find irresistible.

It’s obvious in his writing that he assumes himself superior to other people— he puts the snobbiest hipsters to shame on this front. He has the corner on the truths of the universe, and he watches the poor mortals (aka, the entire rest of the world, except for the noble savages, of course) who flounder about in their futile existences, hoping that he can somehow help them break free. His unshakable confidence that he is right, and everyone else is wrong, is fascinating to me. 

Along the same lines, his romantic views of nature are laughable. He sees nature as a perfect symphony with no flaws, no dangers, and no downfalls, although he also imagines nature as becoming even greater under the hands of a thoughtful human (aka, himself). There is no room for savagery, disease or discord in his view of nature. (Incidentally, Annie Dillard’s writing is a great antidote to this.) And yet, and yet… Even though the ridiculous romanticism is the same stuff as the groan-worthy material of Disney’s Pocahontas, Thoreau actually believes it. Living in the midst of nature, with the mosquitos and dirt floor and wood chopping and bitter winters and rain dripping through his roof, he still believed that nature was perfect. There’s something beguiling about that kind of conviction.

I think Thoreau has a lot of ridiculous ideas, but that is half the fun. The pages of my copy of Walden are full of marginalia: I tell him he’s ridiculous; I applaud him for an insight; I assure him that I see where he’s coming from, even though I don’t agree. With the exception of C.S. Lewis, Thoreau is the only author that I actively argue with when I’m reading. Reading his book makes me feel like I’m engaging with someone who delights in debate— except that, unlike a real conversation, I have nothing to lose.

I don’t want to give the impression that I simply like Walden because I think Thoreau is silly. Far from it— despite his snobby romanticism, Thoreau has a lot of really interesting and wise things to say. He is earnestly trying to convey wisdom as he knows it, and jewels of insight glitter all throughout the book. He condemns materialism, challenges ridiculous social norms, and makes some striking predictions about the future (there is a section that predicts the existence of tabloids). Buried in the middle of the book, Thoreau writes this gem, his most famous quote:

“Simplify, simplify.”

In a cluttered, busy, fast-paced world, this advice is more pertinent than ever. Simplify, simplify. Thoreau showed the people of the nineteenth century that you could build your own house and eat a simple diet and patch your clothes and leave broad margins in your life. He teaches us today that things don’t have to be as complicated as we make them, that there is great value in silence, and solitude, and simplicity.

He invites readers to stop going through the motions of life, to think about things, to wake up, to be present. He encourages us to  stand in the sun, listen to the birds, chop some wood, watch the pond freeze over. Live, Thoreau tells us. Stop sleepwalking and live. “To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

It’s a strange and captivating book, and it’s certainly not for all tastes. But I like it, and I think that I always will. After all, as Thoreau himself said, “My shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement.”


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