Walden is a book that some people are first introduced to when they are forced to read it in school. I didn’t read it until long after I’d finished school. The book came to me as a prize in a contest that was held during a meeting at work. It took me years before I got around to actually reading the book.
To me, Walden was a difficult read. I say this as a person who has dyslexia, and who also has a B.S. degree in Education. Take from that whatever you will. I recommend that people pick up the Barnes & Noble version of Walden because it has a lot of “extras” in it that helped me to understand the background history of Thoreau and some of the references he mentioned.
The most difficult part of Walden is what I’m going to call a “language barrier”. The book is written in English, but it doesn’t sound much like the English we use today. Walden was written in 1854 under the title Walden: or, Life in the Woods. The cultural references he uses would very likely be understood by people who read the book around the time it was published. Today, it is best to find a copy with footnotes that explain what Thoreau was trying to say.
Over his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau wrote more than one work that would likely be placed into the Nature or Travel sections if he had written them today. If you happen to like books about nature, or about a man trying to live away from home and out in nature, you might like Walden.
It makes sense that Walden is a nature book with some political and social commentary mixed into it. Thoreau was aware of politics at the time, and strongly disapproved of slavery and the Mexican American war. Some parts of Walden make reference to a time Thoreau spent in jail because he refused to pay a tax – as a means of trying to show the American government his disapproval.
The majority of Walden, however, could be described as a love story about a man and his pond. Henry David Thoreau took the time to learn all about Walden pond. He wrote about the color, clarity, and purity of the water inside it and the white sand that surrounded it (and was at the bottom of the pond). He noted all the different kinds of wildlife that visited the pond (or lived inside it). He noted what humans did on the pond – including fishing (at different times of the year) and cutting blocks of ice off the pond (during winter).
Thoreau carried water from Walden pack back to the cabin he built in the woods, and used it as drinking water. He bathed in the pond and obtained fish from it. He used some water from the pond, and some sand, to mix a compound to fortify his cabin with in an effort to keep out the winter wind. The list goes on. He even provides a history of the pond and compares it to some of the other local ponds.
My favorite parts of Walden are the pieces where Thoreau is talking about Walden pond. I also enjoyed the parts where he describes, in great detail, how he built his cabin (including where he obtained the materials from and what it cost). Another interesting part, at least to me, was the chapter where he talks about his bean field, which was a very small field by the cabin. Not only does he talk about the labor involved in growing just enough beans for himself (to either eat or trade), but also the wildlife he encountered while working in the bean field.
Scattered throughout the book are pieces of social commentary. It becomes very clear that Thoreau wasn’t a fan of people who were boring. He found himself wanting to escape social gatherings where everything is formal and conversation is dull. Some parts of Walden focus on specific people Thoreau met while living by Walden pond. He walks readers through the conversations he had, and shares his opinions of the people he spoke with. He does not hesitate to praise the interesting people or lament about the stuffy ones.
One thing that comes through loud and clear is Thoreau’s interest in living simply. Towards the beginning of the book, he tells a story about a man who had to move, and who was stuck trying to move a cart full of his belongings down the road to wherever he was moving to. To Thoreau, this seemed like a miserable way to live.
The copy of Walden I read has a quote from Henry David Thoreau on the back. “Our life is frittered away by detail…. Simplify, simplify.”. This philosophy matches up with the current interest in Minimalism. The idea is to get rid of belongings that you don’t need, that you don’t use, or that do not bring you joy. I believe that Thoreau would approve of that.
I highly recommend taking the time to learn a bit about Henry David Thoreau’s background before reading Walden. It helps to understand why he was once in jail for failing to pay a tax. The situation inspired him to write Civil Disobedience.
It also is good to know that Thoreau didn’t just head off into the woods on a whim. He was actually staying on the land of his friend (and former mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson. There is no doubt in my mind that building a cabin, hunting or foraging for food, and growing your own beans would be a hard way to live (compared with people living in the town in large homes and buying your food at the store).
Thoreau chose to live that way, for a time, and it seems he found it worthwhile and rewarding. If his experiment failed, or proved to be too difficult, he wasn’t really in any danger of dying in the woods. There are times when he has visitors from town, including his friend Lidian Jackson Emerson (who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife.)
In short, Walden starts off as a difficult read, until you get the hang of it. It helps to obtain a copy with footnotes and background information. If you love books about nature, you will probably enjoy Walden. I found it kind of nice to imagine living the way Thoreau chose to at Walden pond. All I can do is imagine, however, because I have way too many allergies to try something like that myself.