Walden and Civil Disobedience Info

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Henry David Thoreau reflects on life, politics, and society
in these two inspiring masterworks: Walden and Civil
Disobedience
.

In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin that he
built with his own hands along the shores of Walden Pond in
Massachusetts. Shedding the trivial ties that he felt bound much of
humanity, Thoreau reaped from the land both physically and mentally, and
pursued truth in the quiet of nature. In Walden, he explains how
separating oneself from the world of men can truly awaken the sleeping
self. Thoreau holds fast to the notion that you have not truly existed
until you adopt such a lifestyle—and only then can you reenter
society, as an enlightened being.
 
These simple but
profound musings—as well as “Civil Disobedience,” his
protest against the government’s interference with civil
liberty—have inspired many to embrace his philosophy of
individualism and love of nature. More than a century and a half later,
his message is more timely than ever.
 
With an
Introduction by W.S. Merwin

and an Afterword by Will
Howarth

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Walden and Civil Disobedience:

3

Dec 26, 2007

The tale of a man who dared to live in his parents backyard and eat dinner with them, and then lived to write about it. Compelling.
5

August 10, 2016

Walden, the Kindle version.
This little book has a big heart and is well worth reading on your Kindle. I have some printed versions, but recently had the opportunity to visit Walden pond (a state reservation) near Concord, MA, and loaded the Kindle version on my Kindle Fire as I could then read it without having my book suffer travel wear and tear. So I took the train from Boston, somewhere close to Harvard University, towards Concord, and spent the day walking the pathways surrounding the pond. I could read the book and search for matching descriptions of the pond area as described by Henry Thoreau. That was a lot of fun. The train line still runs on its original track, and you can imagine Henry listening to the whistle and seeing the smoke of the train. The park and pond is beautiful, and combined with the book and Henry Thoreau's stories, transfers one back in time to another world, a world that was both different and similar to the world that we know. There is a life-size model of Henry Thoreau's cabin (he lived in this cabin for 2 years and 2 months, and started construction late March 1845) in the parking lot across the road, and construction has started on a new visitors centre. Load this book on your Kindle and visit the pond...
5

September 18, 2018

Worth reading or re-reading
I first read "Walden" in a freshmen seminar course in American Lit, and it was quite daunting reading at the time. Thoreau seemed an over-rated author: he darts from topic to topic with little to no transition, he quotes obscure passages, he sermonizes. And perhaps most frustrating of all, he wants his writing to be ambiguous (see for instance, Chapter 18), and for an assiduous college student eager to absorb and analyze, this can be quite an overwhelming experience. So, I got very little of Thoreau at the time.

Ten year's later, I decide that I would pick "Walden" up again. I told myself that I would stop whenever the reading became too discursive or abstract... And I did not stop until I reached the end!

As any student of early American lit. knows, Thoreau built a small house for himself in the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, MA, where he lived for two years (1845-1847), documenting his experiences living there in "Walden." He hoed beans for a living, lived a mile from his nearest neighbor and survived on the absolute minimum that he could. In his downtime, he would swim, fish, read and take in his surroundings, describing every sight and sound with the utmost care. Thoreau creates for his reader an unforgettable Nature-observing experience with such richness of detail that we feel we are right there with him. We hear the owl's cry, we witness the loon diving into the pond and the two ants going head-to-head in battle, we see the blue of Walden Pond. He is a student of Nature of the highest order and extracts from each of these experiences a parable about humanity: what we lack and how we can be free. For Thoreau, Walden Pond is a place of purity, an oasis, an Eastern paradise on earth, a Ganges.

An ardent non-conformist, Thoreau also uses this book as a sounding board for his "radical" views and practices. He detests the railroad and its encroachment upon his land (and more generally, that of technology on human and animal life). He refuses to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery and the Mexican War (for which he is briefly imprisoned during one of his sallies to the village). He prefers Eastern spirituality and meditation to Western religiosity. He spurns the high life and abstains from drinking and eating meat. He believes that man is in a dormant intellectual state, from which he can one day rise and embrace the dawn. And the list continues...

Thoreau's prose is also rather unique. What one must remember is that he is faithful student of Emerson and like Emerson, his paragraphs often contain non sequiturs, digressions and sometimes outright contradictions. It was perhaps this lack of logical linearity that initially kept from enjoying his work as a college student. We must be indulgent with Thoreau: his wit, his aphorisms, his acumen are well worth the sometimes uncomfortable task of deciphering his prose. I am very glad that at nearly the same age as Thoreau, I took a journey to Walden Pond with him.
4

Jul 28, 2017

A naturalist, a transcendentalist or an individualist?
Thoreau’s principles could be labelled with the previous statutory concepts and yet none of them would suffice to provide a full description of him. He struck me as a man who didn’t want to be restricted by category; he chose experience and common sense as modus operandi to lead a deliberate lifestyle and to reach his own conclusions without meaning to inculcate them on others.

Walden is the result of Thoreau’s minute observations that he A naturalist, a transcendentalist or an individualist?
Thoreau’s principles could be labelled with the previous statutory concepts and yet none of them would suffice to provide a full description of him. He struck me as a man who didn’t want to be restricted by category; he chose experience and common sense as modus operandi to lead a deliberate lifestyle and to reach his own conclusions without meaning to inculcate them on others.

Walden is the result of Thoreau’s minute observations that he compiled while he lived in a rustic shed near a lake in Concort, Massachusets. Full of all kind of practical detail, the book is more than a diary but less than a philosophical abstraction. It arises as a fragmented tapestry of the meditations of a man concerned about his surroundings and the society to which he belongs, even if he makes a conscious effort to disentangle from his contemporary fellowmen in order to think straight, in order to stablish priorities without the social distractions attached to community living.
The idea that shines brighter in Thoreau’s discourse is that actions should be faithful mirrors of belief, so he decided to act consequently and he cut back comfort to be more in charge of his simple, frugal life. Man lives in constant stimulation to consume above his real needs according to a general interest that doesn’t necessarily correlate to his own.
It’s important not to mistake Thoreau’s aversion to frivolity with unfounded rejection of modernity or technological progress by default. He professes that man can achieve spiritual and physical serenity by contemplation of the natural world, and redefine the notion of welfare, which shouldn’t imply accumulating wealth, but rather making use of it only when it is required.
Austerity, self-reliance and a clearly defined frame of values are essential to write one’s destiny without giving way to external pressures. Thoreau’s “original experiment” doesn’t aspire to preach or to impose a guideline to create a following. Instead, it invites to reflect about the principles that rule our lives and question whether we are investing our limited time on what is really essential.

Far from being a grumpy hermit, Thoreau sings the praises of a good conversation and basks in the company of those with inquisitive minds, dismissing the lulling tonality of generalized academic discourse. Poet, philosopher and fisherman share equal positions in Thoreau’s mental horizon because they all have a close relationship with nature and they don’t take its precious gifts for granted.
Walden is in fact a hymn to the natural rhythms and seasons, to the trees and vegetation that blooms and decays in perfect communion with the birds and fauna that populate the wilderness. The pond is the ever-present witness to Thoreau’s unusual moral firmness, to the authenticity of his resolutions, and sometimes overwhelming culture that is exquisitely balanced out with his surprising sensitivity. Ice melting into transparent-blue water that later acquires a greenish tint when the spring sun hauls the earth finds the ideal recipient in Thoreau’s ideals of justice and beauty.

Personally, I might not fully agree with everything that Thoreau exposes in this work, his reasoning might end up being repetitive and it runs the risk of sounding a bit like postulating, but I can’t help but admire the man who knew how to include as much poetry in his life as life in literature and inspire future generations to fight for what they believe is right. ...more
2

November 27, 2015

Review of ANNOTATED EDITION, not of Thoreau's work
Review of ANNOTATED EDITION, not of Thoreau's work. Potentially great idea. Many of the annotations were superficial or unnecessary, although others helpful. Biggest problem with this is the printer's layout, which has two careless oversights: size and position on page. Two pages of text have been squeezed onto a single page (to allow the side-by-side commentary), resulting in tiny print. Tough on anyone over 40. Then, the printer left wide margins on the *outside* of the page, and squeezed Thoreau's text into the binding. Really foolish use of the available space.

The result is something that could have been fascinating being just plain awkward and unsatisfying to handle and read.
0

Jul 01, 2011

This book alerted me to the fickleness of my own opinions.

At first it all seemed rather nice "the majority of men live lives of quiet desperation" and all that. But then I found out about the doughnuts.

Apparently every so often Thoreau would walk down the road to the nearby town where his Mum lived and she would treat him to doughnuts. Thoreau in Walden doesn't mention the doughnuts, instead detailing the amount of beans he grew but for me the doughnuts torpedo the project in three ways.

Firstly This book alerted me to the fickleness of my own opinions.

At first it all seemed rather nice "the majority of men live lives of quiet desperation" and all that. But then I found out about the doughnuts.

Apparently every so often Thoreau would walk down the road to the nearby town where his Mum lived and she would treat him to doughnuts. Thoreau in Walden doesn't mention the doughnuts, instead detailing the amount of beans he grew but for me the doughnuts torpedo the project in three ways.

Firstly in crude calorific terms, secondly by underlining how Thoreau's experiment in independence is possible only within the context of his dependence on society both in the sense of the goods that the wider society produced and in the sense of social interaction, thirdly it presents his conversation with the passing Irishman and his family in a different light - what Thoreau shows us inadvertently is not the contrast between life in the woods and life as a wage slave but the contrast between a life of being born into privilege, in which one has the personal connections that allows one to live on someone else's land and eat doughnuts without have to earn the money to buy them, and not having privilege in society. What Thoreau could do was impossible for the Irishman and his family who he looks down on.

To clarify slightly (view spoiler)[ or to confuse matters further depending on your point of view (hide spoiler)]following on from comments below, I'm not interested in the question of hypocrisy. What I see is that Thoreau lived an experiment but published false results. Despite what ever he may write to the contrary while man can live in the woods, it is not sufficient. Even the most reclusive of men are social animals, even though they deny it, one does not escape Aristotle quite so easily (view spoiler)[ except in the case of biology (hide spoiler)].

(view spoiler)[ Also with regard to comments below I point the gentle reader in the direction of the Podcast by the woman who wrote Who cooked Adam Smith's dinner? on the same subject, again this insight torpedoes Thoreau as it does Adam Smith in my opinion in the disregard for an aspect of the daily realities of life that both experienced but turned a blind eye to in their pontifications (hide spoiler)]

Another reading might be that even if wood dwelling was a reasonable possibility for all people, Thoreau's experiment demonstrates the need for centres of doughnut production within easy walking distance of even the most widely scattered hermits. And if we need doughnut production, it follows we require a social and economic apparatus that enables it. But Thoreau, despite how dear doughnuts were to him, doesn't want to admit to this in his writing. On reflection, and at my advanced age, I find this sad, self denying. Perhaps Thoreau intuited that there could be no reconciliation between doughnut eating and a life of freedom when the former involved slavery (view spoiler)[ on account of the sugar (hide spoiler)], international trade, coercive labour management, ecological upheaval, a technically developing society and so on. Perhaps this is one reason why we speak of "the American Dream" rather than the American reality.

Having said all that he also has many beautiful things to say about nature and living a life with intention and integrity. But as a reader we can enjoy his doughnuts and have them a little salted (view spoiler)[ unless you have high blood pressure... (hide spoiler)] ...more
5

November 8, 2016

A beautiful and inspiring book.
It was a wonderful experience to actually feel like I was there with Thoreau at Walden Pond. The way he studied and described simply living and the appreciation of nature fits right into my values. I loved having insight to a life that took place so many years ago through his eyes, and with his mind and heart. He expresses his beliefs about life and society so eloquently. At times he goes into great detail in his observations, but then masterfully makes a valid point that is truly inspiring. This is a book that really makes you think about the purpose of our existence in this world, our values, and how we should live.
2

Aug 18, 2007

Walden: I take issue with a wealthy man living in a shack for a period and pretending that living one mile from town and having his mother do his laundry qualifies him to advise mankind to "sell your clothes and keep your thoughts."

An experiment in simplicity, getting close to nature, I'm all for it. But when your experiment ends in a renewal of your previous lifestyle, how can you advise others to make changes that would leave them in the position permanently?
1

December 1, 2015

This version is NOT annotated
This book is NOT annotated! There is some junk at the back about the life of H.D. Thoreau that reads like a high schooler wrote it. Not my idea of annotations. The whole text of the book is in some weird sans serif font and looks like it was directly pasted into Word, no page numbers or headers or anything. False advertising and terrible format that would preclude one from reading it. Do not buy this book.
5

Jun 24, 2007

I often credit this book with my philosophical awakening. Thoreau presents a criticism of modern life, technology, economy, and wasteful culture from the perspective of one who has simplified his life and experienced something much closer to real independence than any other modern man. Some have criticized him for not being truly and completely independent - he lived on Emerson's property, he visited friends for the occasional dinner, he washed his clothes at his mother's house - but I think I often credit this book with my philosophical awakening. Thoreau presents a criticism of modern life, technology, economy, and wasteful culture from the perspective of one who has simplified his life and experienced something much closer to real independence than any other modern man. Some have criticized him for not being truly and completely independent - he lived on Emerson's property, he visited friends for the occasional dinner, he washed his clothes at his mother's house - but I think these criticisms miss the point. Total and complete self-reliance is impossible in the modern world. Thoreau came closer than any other writer or philosopher of his time.

Read it for his pure and earnest love of nature, his witty and idiosyncratic style, his subtle humor, and his benediction to all of society that we always have an alternative to supporting an immoral status quo. ...more
4

Nov 23, 2014

Henry David Thoreau is best known as an American writer and transcendentalist who wanted first-hand to experience intuitively and understand profoundly the rapport between man and nature. In a sense Thoreau is Adam after the Fall living East of Eden as a bachelor in a humble cabin built beside Walden Pond by his own hands with tools borrowed from Concord neighbors and sustained by the fruits of a bean field sown in his garden and with resources granted to him by the wilderness. He wants to Henry David Thoreau is best known as an American writer and transcendentalist who wanted first-hand to experience intuitively and understand profoundly the rapport between man and nature. In a sense Thoreau is Adam after the Fall living East of Eden as a bachelor in a humble cabin built beside Walden Pond by his own hands with tools borrowed from Concord neighbors and sustained by the fruits of a bean field sown in his garden and with resources granted to him by the wilderness. He wants to transcend inauthentic, everyday life in Concord and awaken his “over-soul” to the beauty and harmony of life by living mindfully in every moment in the subtly beckoning arms of the woods, ponds, rivers, seacoast and mountains of New England. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,” Thoreau writes in Walden in "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For." This deliberate action to immerse himself in nature would pulsate with a circadian rhythm throughout his brief, vibrant life as he canoed the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, walked the beaches of Cape Cod and traveled in the wilds of Maine with Native American guides. Thoreau studied at Harvard College between 1833 and 1837. Living in Hollis Hall, he read rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics and science, and became a member of the Hasty Pudding Club. With his brother, John, they opened a grammar school in 1838 in Concord Academy but their school ended when John became fatally ill from tetanus in 1842 after cutting himself while shaving: John died in Henry's arms. In Concord he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who took a paternal interest in Thoreau and introduced him to local writers like Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing and his future literary representative, Horace Greeley. On April 30, 1844 he and his friend, Edward Hoar, accidentally set a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. After fishing they built a fire in a tree stump near the pond to make chowder. Amid brisk winds in near-drought conditions, the fire spread from the stump into dry grass. When the fire reached the trees, Henry ran through the woods ahead of the flames, encountering an owner of the blazing woods. Atop Fair Haven Hill he watched aghast as the old forest of pine, birch, alders, oaks, and maples spread through the drought-stricken woods. With Concord at risk the fire burned for a day until volunteers subdued it. In March 1845 Ellery Channing told a restless Thoreau, "Go out, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you." Thus, Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in living simply on July 4, 1845, when he moved to a modest cabin that he constructed on 14 acres of land owned by Emerson on the shores of Walden Pond. As a protégé of Emerson, Thoreau transformed into a supremely self-reliant individual, which is a core value of transcendentalism. Transcendentalists hold that an ideal spiritual state transcends, or overcomes, the physical and empirical world around us and that one achieves insight through personal intuition. Nature is the outward manifestation of one’s over-soul by expressing the "radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts," as Emerson wrote in "Nature" in 1836. At Walden, Thoreau seeks a deep dive into the over-soul like a wood duck on a tranquil pond at dawn and he finds the engine of this crossing-over into a transcendent understanding of life by his immersive communion with nature in all of its pure manifestations. In solitude Thoreau distances himself from others, not only by a few miles of geography to the pristine purity of the water of Walden Pond, but also by a worldview intent upon surveying the botany of the Garden undistracted by the common, quotidian pursuits of his Concord neighbors. “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” he writes. As he confronts his most basic need for shelter in the woods, he writes, “Before winter, I built a chimney.” He borrows an axe from a neighbor but returns it sharper than he received it. In “Higher Laws” he poses the central existential question to his Concord neighbors to which Walden is his answer: “Why do you stay here and live this moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?” ...more
4

Nov 15, 2012

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau's solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:
If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he's an insufferable teenager. ...more
5

March 19, 2017

A brilliant classic by a brilliant man.
One of my favorite books by Henry David Thoreau. The illustrations add to it nicely and the cover and binding seem well made. This book is excellent for anyone who loves the idea of escaping from society and finding yourself. It serves as a reminder that as modern society advances, we become almost less human, going about the motions rather than living and experiencing all that life and nature has to offer. Great book for any avid nature lover.
5

Mar 06, 2012

Walden is not for everyone. This is why it is so accurately and justifiably cherished by its admirers, and so ridiculously and criminally misunderstood by its detractors. The critics of Walden levy ad hominem after ad hominem against Thoreau, as if the utmost specifics of his experience detract from the purported "arguments" he puts forth about the absolute means everyone "must" live their lives. Clearly his meditations on cherishing solitude are false, because he did enjoy company every now and Walden is not for everyone. This is why it is so accurately and justifiably cherished by its admirers, and so ridiculously and criminally misunderstood by its detractors. The critics of Walden levy ad hominem after ad hominem against Thoreau, as if the utmost specifics of his experience detract from the purported "arguments" he puts forth about the absolute means everyone "must" live their lives. Clearly his meditations on cherishing solitude are false, because he did enjoy company every now and then; clearly he wasn't truly "cut loose" into the wilderness, as he had a safety net accurately called Emerson's backyard.

Walden is much simpler than that. It is not gonzo journalism; it is not stunt non-fiction. It is not proto-Krakauer hullabaloo. All it is, plain and simple, is intellectual pursuit. This does not engage some people. It's introspective, thoughtful, and focused, which generally means it goes unread and derided by people who only have a cursory knowledge of the tale passed down generation by generation of mouth-breathing hill-people in a tragic game of literary telephone.

But beyond the beautiful imagery and sophisticated metaphor and all those enchanted little things lies this notion of mindfulness; Thoreau succeeded in fulfilling this need to be surrounded by that which will keep one's mind alert. Thoreau ultimately needed an environment that broke the barriers of habit and allowed for his mind to enter a state of stimulated, unfettered wakefulness. These things tend to atrophy without ready labor or measured gratification.

Perhaps this is why I thought Walden so satisfying; it succeeds greatly as a treatise on depression. Whether or not it is Thoreau's intent is debatable, but my reading experience was enriched by how entrenched my sorrow is in habitual alienation and a constant sense of insufficient physical and mental exertion. Where is the product to which I am lending my services? How do I train myself to make a white fluorescent wall endlessly stimulating? Walden expanded several of my hypotheses with regard to depression in a positive way; it gave breadth to the soul-searching I regularly perform to monitor and assess my own sadness. The opportunities for expanding perspective and allowing for growth are multiple in Walden, and I admire a book for presenting those opportunities. One of the ways it did that was to espouse solitude, embrace simplicity, and not necessarily champion self-reliance, but find simpler yet deeper means of satisfaction in more antiquated notions of economy. Surely his devices will not work for everyone, but seeing his own efforts manifest themselves, by making something tangible and note-worthy, and lending himself over to the power of observation are all things I truly envied in him. The barriers that perhaps routine, modern gratitude, and an alarming sense of inter-dependence can place on happiness are almost too palpable now, and sadly, the means to attain Thoreau's level of immersion are almost lost. I do not think there is wilderness to speak of anymore. Perhaps depression is a means of my brain to beg me to lock into a long-term, serious, substantial issue, and solve it to the betterment of my own health and to the contentment of others; depression is certainly a means to enter a ruminative cycle of focused thought. Could that cycle be liberated if I found myself doing that serious, substantive work? Could it be liberated by finding the degree of stimulation Thoreau discovered in a nearly constant stream of unfiltered newness?

Enough about that; Thoreau is a romantic, and I don't believe so much that Walden is meant to be taken as a how-to gospel or even a polemic. It is a personal experience captured, a journey taken and a journey ultimately discovered. There is little reason for it to be taken as more than that, and, as such, it is rife with beautifully-crafted aphorisms, insights that could benefit you depending on who you are, and it is wall-to-wall equipped with very helpful and comforting insights to those of us struggling to make ways in the world as it stands now. It's a mental journey that can cure what ails you, if you're the kind of person for it, and believe me, my copy is riddled with underlines, and its margins covered with ink. This book was the perfect recommendation for myself.

(As a side note, I am only rating Walden, and am not incorporating the essay Civil Disobedience into this evaluation, which I have disregarded if only to emphasize that part of the text which I consider more essential.) ...more
3

Apr 07, 2017

So as part of my reading challenge for this year (mislabeled as being done in 2016, not 2017), I'm re-reading books 'everyone' loves (everyone being just a general consensus, not literally everyone) and which I hated / didn't like / was unmoved the first time I read it.

This March's book was Walden.

1. I don't know when I first read this. I think it was in Grad School 1.0, but it might have been as an Undergrad 2.0. No idea.

2. Shameful admission, I don't think I ever read the entire book the So as part of my reading challenge for this year (mislabeled as being done in 2016, not 2017), I'm re-reading books 'everyone' loves (everyone being just a general consensus, not literally everyone) and which I hated / didn't like / was unmoved the first time I read it.

This March's book was Walden.

1. I don't know when I first read this. I think it was in Grad School 1.0, but it might have been as an Undergrad 2.0. No idea.

2. Shameful admission, I don't think I ever read the entire book the first time. Which makes me think it was part of a survey class required of everyone in my department in Grad School. My guess is I was required to read the long first chapter (which happened to be the only chapter marked up at all in my copy with notes and underlines), along with a couple of Emerson Essays and "Schopenhauer as Educator" by Nietzsche in the week on Transcendental philosophy or thought. This makes sense in a way because my previous review (which is one of my more popular ones I have ever written at a whopping two lines) made a note of him living in his backyard. This isn't mentioned in the book itself and seems like the sort of fact that the cynical professor I had for this class would have said and imprinted on my brain. But it's also the sort of thing that a snarky professor I had in undergrad might have said, and I could see this book being used in the Philosophy of Utopias and Dystopias class he taught.

3. I found that I generally agree with Thoreau on more things than I thought I would. I'm not sure why my younger self didn't like this more than he did. Oh wait, I do know why, and that is...

4. I don't like Thoreau. As a person, I imagine wanting to punch Thoreau in the face. I'm sure my college self saw him as an old timey version of the hippies / Deadheads / Phish fans he went to school with and hated hated hated. Thoreau comes across as a fairly smug self-important twit. Everytime, I would find myself agreeing with him and finding myself enjoying the book he would go off on some tangent or write something that came across as insufferable.

5. I think I liked this book more than when I first read it (or at least read the first chapter (which in fairness is the meatiest part of the book)), but I'm still placing it in the three star area. I used to hate when people said this kind of thing about books, so I feel like a dick for saying it, but it was too long. There were parts that just went on and on way too much. Since it's a 'classic' and beloved by people I have to admit that the book must resonate with people, but I still feel like it could have been more powerful in its message if it had been honed down a bit.

I should have written this while the book was fresher in my mind. I'm sorta glad I re-read it. I definitely appreciate it more than I did, but I still don't love it. It did make me want to try reading some Emerson again, and if I can figure out where in my stacks of books my copy of his complete essays is I'll probably givem them a read in the near future. ...more
4

August 25, 2016

A challenging but rewarding read!
"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem." Just one of my many of my favorite quotes from this book! Thoreau has to be one of the most complex and most insightful authors I have ever read. It took me a few months to finish, due to on and off reading and also trying to soak in the book as much as I could while reading it. Compared to most of us in today's rat race, Thoreau seemed, even back then, to have a great dislike for the hustle and bustle his townfolk were enveloped in, and sought refuge in a cabin of his construction near Walden Pond for about 2 years. He eagerly describes his surroundings and observations, from a seemingly epic battle between ants, to the different hues of colors he observes in Walden Pond throughout the seasons.

It was one of the most challenging reads of my life, but one book I am so glad to have read. Thoreau had a lot of wisdom for someone of his time. What threw me off at times were his references to things like ancient history when he discusses his narrative of whatever he happens to be talking about at that time, which seems kind of random at times. It can be fairly easy to get lost at times, but keep in mind, this was written in the mid 1800's. Sometimes, it felt like reading this book was a lengthy homework assignment. Even still, it was a pleasure to have read this masterpiece. I suggest giving this a read if you have the patience for a deep and enlightening read.
2

Jun 11, 2010

Here's the thing: I like what Thoreau did here, and I agree with many of his philosophical points, and I hate giving up on books. That said, dude was pompous and long-winded. I've been trying to read this for about a month, but it has become that archetypal High School Summer Reading Book. You know, the one that you hate but is looming over you from the moment you get out of school until you finally look up the spark notes the morning of the first day that fall before the bus comes. I stopped Here's the thing: I like what Thoreau did here, and I agree with many of his philosophical points, and I hate giving up on books. That said, dude was pompous and long-winded. I've been trying to read this for about a month, but it has become that archetypal High School Summer Reading Book. You know, the one that you hate but is looming over you from the moment you get out of school until you finally look up the spark notes the morning of the first day that fall before the bus comes. I stopped reading it because it felt like too much of a job.

I came to the decision to give up when he had been talking about how much he paid for the materials to make his shack and listing all of the items in it for what felt like roughly 700 pages (but was actually just a cruel 10 or so). Perhaps it's just the wrong time in my life. Perhaps I'm illiterate swine. Or perhaps Thoreau's arrogance is so off-putting that he drives away people who would be very sympathetic to his work and beliefs. ...more
3

Aug 20, 2017

I listened to the audiobook of this and unfortunately the narrator made it somewhat unbearable to listen to, but I did complete both Walden and the essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. I found Walden to be a pleasant telling of Thoreau's departure from society and living freely in the woods of MA. I enjoyed his philosophies with one in particular; where one can live easier, less stressed and freer when one has less to procure or work for. Civil Disobedience was a bit more fascinating and I listened to the audiobook of this and unfortunately the narrator made it somewhat unbearable to listen to, but I did complete both Walden and the essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. I found Walden to be a pleasant telling of Thoreau's departure from society and living freely in the woods of MA. I enjoyed his philosophies with one in particular; where one can live easier, less stressed and freer when one has less to procure or work for. Civil Disobedience was a bit more fascinating and quite relevant due to our current political climate. I am happy to have completed this classic. I am looking forward to a great dialog with my middle son-the transcendentalist. ...more
4

Sep 11, 2007

I first read Walden in perhaps the most ideal set of circumstances possible -- for an entire semester my first year of college, in a highly popular seminar made up of 20 first year students and a brilliant professor of intellectual history. All of the students had been chosen at random from among those interested in the course, and we felt lucky to have been selected. Each class, the professor would ask us to do a close reading of the next chapter, plus re-read all the preceding chapters, and I first read Walden in perhaps the most ideal set of circumstances possible -- for an entire semester my first year of college, in a highly popular seminar made up of 20 first year students and a brilliant professor of intellectual history. All of the students had been chosen at random from among those interested in the course, and we felt lucky to have been selected. Each class, the professor would ask us to do a close reading of the next chapter, plus re-read all the preceding chapters, and then in class we would closely examine the text to try to uncover what Thoreau was up to in his often epigrammatic way. For our many written assignments, we would be given a slip of paper with one or two sentences from the text and be asked to "explicate, in one page," which was about the best learning experience for critical writing I have ever had.

Thoreau's actual ideas were pretty interesting, and he shed light on some of the movements of his period, but I think he's most relevant now as an example of the kind of impact good, crisp, topical writing can have. ...more
3

March 8, 2016

An Agreeable Read
It took me a while to warm up to this book, but after I did, I considered it a pleasant read each night before going to bed. Still, as it is considered an American classic, I was hoping for more. What that "more" is, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps clearer and more profound insights. Much of the time it reads like an agreeable diary with good (sometimes laborious) observations of the world he encountered at Walden Pond. I did enjoy his accounting of how much his cabin cost to build and the money he raised from growing crops. A very different world then.
5

Jan 10, 2011

I actually got to visit Thoreau's cabin for my brother's birthday this April. Despite it being below freezing the mosquito's had already started to breed. When we approached the pond we were engulfed in a cloud of them. I could almost hear them singing with delight as they began to feast. Almost...
perhaps intermittently between screams. (As a side note I would like to say that I am terrified of bugs. Especially the flying ones that like to bite) In denial of the adject horror I was experiencing I actually got to visit Thoreau's cabin for my brother's birthday this April. Despite it being below freezing the mosquito's had already started to breed. When we approached the pond we were engulfed in a cloud of them. I could almost hear them singing with delight as they began to feast. Almost...
perhaps intermittently between screams. (As a side note I would like to say that I am terrified of bugs. Especially the flying ones that like to bite) In denial of the adject horror I was experiencing due to these troublesome creatures I trudged onward; looking upon the house where one of my personal heroes had lived had always been a dream of mine. Thoreau had build the cabin himself. It was a small, isolated alcove in the woods where Thoreau could be alone to write. When we arrived I couldn't believe how small it was. It was like a modern day closet with barely enough room for more than five people. His statue was just outside the front door. He was a small guy. I'd wager a little over five feet tall. He looked even smaller next to all of my relatives who all break six feet. As I peered into the Thoreau's brass face I began to remember why I love this guy.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

There was a billboard with this quote next to the spot where the real cabin - which has fallen apart long ago - had stood.


After reading about how Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay six years of missed tax payments I began to appreciate Thoreau for what he really was. A true American and a very humane person. He wasn't afraid to stand up and fight for what he believed in; nor was he frightened to suffer for it. He was no fool to be trodden over by men who supposed they had the right. His essay Civil Disobedience was instrumental to almost all subsequent social reforms. He inspired monumental figures like Mohandas Gandhi and MLK Jr. and his work did more to preserve the spirit of freedom in America than any other. I would be hard pressed to recommend a more prolific American philosopher. ...more
5

July 8, 2017

it was nonetheless among the best, how could it not be when it comes ...
Undoubtedly one of the most challenging of books I have read, it was nonetheless among the best, how could it not be when it comes to Thoreau. Stumbled upon of his quotes today and found it uncanny to say the least, "Whatever sentence will bear to be read twice, we may be sure was thought twice." And that couldn't be more true when it comes to Walden as I found myself having to reread many a paragraph to understand his complex sentences that seem to extend beyond half the page. Now layer in the fact that the book was originally published in 1854, and you have the recipe for a most demanding read that will delight, enlighten and inspire any reader who dares to take on the challenge!

As the story goes, Walden is tale about the time Thoreau spent in his cabin along the shores of Walden pond during his latter 20s. During his two years, he reflects upon his surrounds with his transcendental insights into humanity. Sometimes cynical, sometimes complacent, Thoreau nonetheless weaves together his discoveries about the nature of the earth and that of humanity as whole. From his point of view on the economies of his little cabin and that of 19th-century man to the change of the seasons and the visitors who darken his humble doorway.

If you enjoy brilliant writing despite the aforementioned challenges, this is a must-read for all lovers of classic literature!
2

Jun 30, 2017

Man this book was tedious as hell. There were a handful of cute thoughts and clever poeticals strewn throughout this sucker but mostly it's just some obnoxious dude going "Yo have you ever looked at a bird?" for a coupla hundred pages. It's like hanging out with someone who's on mushrooms when you're not.

"Snipes and wood-cocks may afford rare sport, but I suspect it may be nobler game to shoot oneself."

Yeah okay, you first dude.
3

Jun 04, 2012

Thoreau is kind of a brat. I'm sorry! I understand and appreciate his commitment to shedding material goods, living off of his own labor, valuing the natural world, etc. But every time he describes conversing with someone else, he comes off as painfully condescending, whether he's just marveling at the purity of their simplistic minds or smirking at a family that's had him over for dinner, who seem, to him, far too burdened with their material possessions. He rarely describes the hardships Thoreau is kind of a brat. I'm sorry! I understand and appreciate his commitment to shedding material goods, living off of his own labor, valuing the natural world, etc. But every time he describes conversing with someone else, he comes off as painfully condescending, whether he's just marveling at the purity of their simplistic minds or smirking at a family that's had him over for dinner, who seem, to him, far too burdened with their material possessions. He rarely describes the hardships encountered throughout his two year experience, and when he does, it's to illuminate how easily he handled them. "I occasionally roasted a rat for dinner [NO KIDDING] and was glad to have something fill my stomach" or "I was wandering delusional and hungry in the winter woods but wow the majesty of trees yadda yadda" and just seems generally oblivious to the practical reasons most people don't just jump off the grid (like maybe they don't send their laundry home to be washed while living in the woods, as Thoreau did? Or they don't want to eat rats!!)

So he ignores the practical working of this lifestyle while prescribing it for everyone, and then just spends pages on the formation of bubbles in the ice of the pond and by this point I was rolling my eyes so hard I started to get a headache. I don't know! I love the majesty of nature too! The pacing and structure just never grabbed me, and I had way more questions about his life at Walden than he seemed interested in answering.

Civil Disobedience was the main reason I picked this up. I've seen it quoted here and there (most recently in an Anthony Burgess essay reprinted in The New Yorker), particularly the bit about it not just being a right, but a responsibility to rebel against the government. Okay! I can get behind that. But as maybe I should've guessed from Walden, he's absurdly libertarian almost to the point of anarchy, and it's really frustrating. Dude refuses to pay taxes (he's jailed for this at one point, but an anonymous benefactor pays his debt and he's released) and insists that he feels free to refuse the protection of the state and refuses to give it his allegiance. Which, fine, whatever, he's an abolitionist and wants the state to recognize ALL men and this is good, obviously. EXCEPT then he talks about how if he IS in actual danger someday then he'll pay some taxes and get the state's protection but until then NO THANK YOU. HENRY DAVID, HOW DO YOU THINK THIS WORKS. Agh, I don't know. It was frustrating.

Now I'm being a little unfair- the first section of Walden, in particular, had some great stuff about our expectations of comfort, versus how supposedly "savage" native Americans organize their communities. Everyone in a native community lives in simple huts or longhouses and everyone has housing, whereas we've achieved these amazing levels of luxury and comfort and a good portion of our population have less than nothing, and what a waste that is of supposed civilization and technology. His ruminations on shelter and how far it can be reduced to its bare elements are all really interesting. He talks a bit about the structure of community and the word "co-munity", as in munitions/defense, and the purposes social structures can serve. It just seems like the great ideas he has in theory translate to a practice where he basically shrugs and says "I, a single white male with no family or debt and a mom who'll do my laundry, could do it, so why can't you?" which is of course frustrating. Maybe he's better in small doses and epigraphs. ...more
5

Feb 07, 2009

I really had no clue what to expect when I picked this book up. I had never read it, and was only introduced to Thoreau through a grad course reading requirement of his. I fell in love then and this book continued that love. While many of his ideas are now cliche, to think that he was speaking them at a time when it was unheard of is incredible to me. There were many "ah ha" moments, when I realized things about everyday life that had not been clear to me before. Ideas about living simply and I really had no clue what to expect when I picked this book up. I had never read it, and was only introduced to Thoreau through a grad course reading requirement of his. I fell in love then and this book continued that love. While many of his ideas are now cliche, to think that he was speaking them at a time when it was unheard of is incredible to me. There were many "ah ha" moments, when I realized things about everyday life that had not been clear to me before. Ideas about living simply and therefore more happily. That owning things can sometimes weigh you down much more than being "poor". He was an enlightened being who recognized the power of human will and thought. I think most people had to read this in high school which I don't agree with. At that stage in life I dont believe many are ready for all the ideas presented. I read it at the perfect time in my life and can't wait to read more of his works. ...more

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