Walden, And On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience: And The Thoreau Essay, Walking by Henry David Thoreau
This took me forever to finish, it ending up as my in between book, the one I'd pick up and read a few pages of when I wasn't focused on something more interesting. As a (pretty common) rule I try not to put down a book until I've finished it, but every now and again one slips through, barring me not also damning it as worthless (which is rare). Is this a weird habit? To be in one way principled, to the point of dogma, about finishing what I've started, but then also to have a stack of books, months untouched, that I've convinced myself I'm still reading? What's that say about me? Shrug. A little tidbit. (Also, I treat these reviews like journal entries.)
Anyway, I finished the second half or so in one big gulp, and now I don't know why I ever put it down.
Walden is canon among the vagabond hippy types. I first heard about it in Sean Penn's Into the Wild where the main character quits life after graduating college to go stomp around America. I heard it again in various interviews with people involved in the #VanLife crowd. Funny how books and ideas tend to form these clusters of relevance. You start following a branch of thought and all the sudden you're in what seemed like obscure territory when looked at from the surface, but after having dived deep you realize it's all familiar and connected. I hear two different sources recommend the same thing, and I realize it's my perception that's got them marked as different, and that personal dissonance is what lights my fire to learn more. Here's a connection I have yet to make but is apparently substantial. So I read the book.
The sentiment of Walden is all about personal exploration. Get rid of the status quo, go down to the minimums, and see what you find. I like to think that in the modern this kind of a thing would be described as a dopamine reset. Rest all your sensors so you can use them to once again navigate. I'd love to try it. And in the meantime, see what you see. Thoreau saw a lot. Some arbitrary highlights:
1. The description of the black and red ant war. The way he analogies it to humans. He trivializes and sanctifies it at the same time. Great stuff.
2. The description of red squirrels as happy-go-lucky manics. If you've ever hunted in the North East, you'll know he gets it spot on.
3. His description of routine as rutted trails, hard to get rid of. And his going to say leaving is the equivalent of starting a new life, something that can be done several times with one body.
4. He's distinction between blind patriotism and patriotism for a system that has, practically, brought to life benevolent potential. i.e., loving the land, but being ignorant to what makes the land exceptional.
I also like his balance for the abstract and concrete. There's so many vivid descriptions of real yet rare stuff: stoves, wood piles, walks, animals, etc. And then at the same time, there's a lot of sophisticated, well founded moral in here too.
Walden needs an update, though. As a piece of history, as the starting point for more modern sentiments and the actions they inspire, it's interesting and sacred, for sure. But it's hard to parse. It's written in a very lyrical, common language; but a lot of it is language we don't use anymore. So if you're looking for a modern guide on how to live in the woods, or an explanation for why you should, then this might be a bit tough to crack. However, if you want to know where it all started, and get a sense for what a diligent, focused, independent soul did when breaking free from a rigidity since past, this is the book.
Anyway, some random thoughts...
On the Civil Disobedience essay: it makes you wonder when, across different time periods of seemingly drastically different setting, you start to hear the same arguments being made against or for government. Thoreau makes a classic libertarian plea that sounds almost identical to the group's current canon, but, at least to the naive me it seems that, obviously the government of his time was way smaller and slower than today and obviously the amount of duty felt and practiced by the individuals of his time was necessarily higher simply by the times lack of convenience and technology, character of the people aside.
And yet here we stand however later, with an undoubtedly more hospitable country than the savage times before medicine and plumbing and roads were taken for granted, making the same -- for whatever reason compelling! -- pleas. It's all very confusing. Are these perspectives artifacts of a yet to be understood higher-level mechanism? I don't know...