Walden is one of those serious American novels that I always knew I wanted to read eventually, but half-dreaded actually starting. Although I am a seasoned reader of the classics, the philosophical leanings of this one intimidated me. Walden isn't a story in the traditional sense; it's a collection of the thoughts and feelings of Henry David Thoreau. I was concerned that I wouldn't understand a lot of it, or that it would be too boring to get through. Moving to Connecticut, however, finally motivated me to pick this novel up. I live only a few hours from Walden Pond now, and I thought it would be fun to read the book and then go see the place for myself. Apprehensively, I buckled down and gave it a try.
Walden is Thoreau's true account of the two years he spent living alone in a tiny cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s. This was a grand experiment for him, and a deep test of his beliefs as a transcendentalist. Transcendentalists believed in the purity of people and nature. They valued man's ability to be independent and self-reliant, and had a decided distaste for modern practices that removed man from the natural world and caused him to rely on others to fulfill his needs. Capitalism and new technology were viewed as corrupting influences while solitude and simplicity were viewed as the ideal ways of life. In moving to the woods for a time, Thoreau aimed to live this ideal life and see if it was possible and fulfilling.
The opening sections of the novel detail how Thoreau established himself on the pond. He describes how he built his own tiny cabin and planted a small garden of beans and other vegetables to live on. He provides detailed records of his possessions and expenses throughout this time, proving that he was able to accomplish setting up his home for very little money. He is able to salvage things like tools and furniture in order to keep costs down, and forgoes any items that aren't absolutely necessary to living. He forages in the woods to supplement his food and drinks only water that he is able to obtain freely from a nearby well. In this way, he is able to provide entirely for himself without needing to have an outside job. He is at liberty to do whatever he likes most days and he glories in the freedom.
As the novel progresses, Thoreau moves onto describing the different sights and sounds he experienced as he lived through the different seasons on the pond. He details the changes in plant life, animal life, and the weather over the course of his residence, often stopping to reflect on the benefits of living so close to nature and taking care of one's own needs. Sprinkled throughout are passages on topics ranging from the importance of reading to the best dietary choices. Thoreau's thoughts are deep and his philosophy is clear. His love and respect for nature are evident on every page and his deep belief in the transcendentalist lifestyle is unwavering.
Eventually, Thoreau ends his experiment, saying, quite poetically, that, "[he] had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." His experiment of independence and self-reliance was a complete success, and his experience at Walden was life-affirming. His concluding chapter is a beautiful encouragement to readers to enjoy their lives and seek greater happiness, no matter what their situation.
Now that I'm at the end of my reading experience, I can honestly say that I enjoyed Walden. I can also say that it was not an easy read. It turns out that both of these things can be true at the same time. I was consistently blown away by thoughtful and inspiring passages. However, I was just as often bored or confused by sections that I struggled to understand. Thoreau's writing is complex; his sentences are long and are often peppered with allusions to things a modern reader wouldn't be familiar with. This made comprehension a challenge at times. Also, some of the more descriptive sections were a bit dry and difficult to get through. For example, much of one chapter is devoted to how ice forms and melts in the pond during the winter, which wasn't exactly riveting material. Despite the difficulty level though, there is enough wisdom and beauty going on in the pages to make the journey worth it, and it's understandable enough for a determined reader to make it through okay.
As I read, I found myself wondering how I would do living out on my own in the woods like Thoreau did. I've never even gone on so much as a camping trip, so probably not very well. Even so, it's always been an idle fantasy of mine to have a little farm out in the middle of nowhere, so his transcendental philosophy was very attractive to me. I do think there's a lot of wisdom in the idea of people living quiet, simple lives. Getting closer to nature, providing for yourself, and making time for reflection and observation sounds quite nice. I think that's one of the reasons why Walden has endured all these years. Thoreau touches on a longing that a lot of people still have. That urge to get away from the cruel machine of modern society and just be alone for a while. I admire him for actually going out an trying it instead of just thinking about it.
Now that I've finished reading, my desire to visit the real Walden Pond has only increased. I'm hoping to travel there in a few weeks to see what standing on that shore feels like. It will be my first ever literary vacation and I can't wait. I'm glad that I finally picked this novel up. It was a very unique reading experience, even with all its difficulties along the way. I know that I will be thinking about many of Thoreau's words and opinions for a long time to come.
Challenge TallyBack to the Classics (a classic with a single word title): 9/12
Classics Club (#65 on my list): 32/100
Total Books Read in 2018: 36