Dan's Reviews > Walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
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Mar 28, 09

Read in March, 2009

I feel a bit pretentious putting this book on as my first review, but I've read it twice in the last two years (once independently and then for my book club), so I figured I'd put it on.

This is a really good book. One of the things thats nice is that it's very hard to pigeonhole. It's not just an environmentalist screed, nor is it a practical survival manual or a scientific journal of nature; at any given moment it can appear to be any of these things, but it never stays there long. It's alternately whimsical musing, but can switch quite quickly to earnest exhortation or what some may consider to be downright self righteous preaching. One member of my book club felt Thoreau could be chiefly characterized as a "pompous ass" for which opinion the book provides plenty of support, but he also had plenty of self deprecating anecdotes and observations that I felt took the edge off of his pompousness.

The book is often framed in terms of what Thoreau's against. Claims are made that his main purpose is to oppose capitalism, consumerism, modern life and to generally paint him as a devout leftist, but again I think efforts to pigeonhole his philosophy and make it fit neatly into the modern American political spectrum are foolish and useless endeavors. Certainly his essay "Civil Disobedience", which was also contained in my copy of Walden, comes across as a libertarian anti-government lecture.

In the end I think Walden is more than anything an attempt at an honest collection of thoughts. Thoreau's philosophy doesn't come across as wholly focused or consistent. One good example is the chapter "Reading", where he extols the virtues of communing with the great minds which have gone before and of immersing yourself in great literature, but in the opening of the very next chapter "Sounds" he says:

"But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will no longer be remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being for ever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen. Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?"

Thoreau strikes me as a man who thinks deeply on many subjects and thus often finds himself having a thought that contradicts a previous one. He doesn't immediately reject the thought because it would shake his world view, but lets it play in his mind rambling about with the ones he'd had before.

I think the book's main point, as summed up in the final chapter, is to encourage us to think deeply. One of the main arguments that Thoreau is anti-capitalist comes from this paragraph in Chapter 1 "Economy":

"Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does
architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never
in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an
occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is
not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the
preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of
labor to end and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another
may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should
do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself."

Certainly an attack on the division of labor is an attack at the core of our modern economic systems, but it's also a criticism to consider. Have we allowed a small percentage of the population become our designated thinkers and readers? Is all of modern society's intellectualism to be contained in ivory towers built solely for that purpose? Where is the man who can build his own home, grow his own beans and quote the great philosophers with proficiency, and can we afford to lose such men?

Anyway it's a great thought provoking book. I gave it four stars, because I was sometimes bored, but maybe that's more a failing of mine than it is the book's. I'd recommend that anyone read it.
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