book-reviews

Walden

by Heny David Thoreau

Rating: ★★★

Walden is, primarily, an exhortation to an examined life, and a plea for individualism. In this philosophy I find no disagreement with Thoreau, who seems in many ways an articulate early voice for these principles. What I struggled with, mostly, was the presentation. Particularly, the introduction to the book, which is a long and rambling monster wherein he seems for a long while to have no particular point or topic -- chiefly this is due to his habit of diving deeply into one sub-point to such a degree that it eclipses the wider topic, before moving on to the next with hardly a reminder. I think also there is an element of preaching to the converted -- I don't find what he has to say as fascinating as it might be to his real audience, because I already agree with it.

Matters do improve, however, later in the book. Walden moves circuitously through a sketch of life out at Thoreau's secluded cabin. He makes some small effort to present this as a detail of a particular year, while editorially acknowledging that it is in fact a collection of events from multiple years. As best I can tell, he left the cabin occasionally in these years. He states he left the cabin in 1847, but he seems to have returned often, into the '50s. His sketch of the surrounding forests, and of daily life, varies between tiresome and poetic, with some rare gripping passages suddenly appearing to make you appreciate the literary merits of the author, and the surprising company he kept: be that the local wildlife or the many visitors he entertained in his homely single-room shack.

There are other facets to the book. In it, Thoreau sets out cases for many realms of thought, from minimalism to vegetarianism to the nature of man as a balance between the animal and the divine. With such breadth, and with Thoreau's capacity to turn a phrase, it is not surprising that Walden is an influential and often-quoted book. Yet for all that, it does not leave me with the impression that it was the best presentation of its kind, and there seems to be much work in the text to obtain the nuggets. Not so extreme in this as Darwin's travelogue, but still an awkward text, perhaps due to the nature of the writing Thoreau was surrounded with.