I finally read this, after two previous attempts (years ago) and a break in the middle for something easier. My copy contains not only Walden: or Life in the Woods but also Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown and Life Without Principle.
Here’s the thing: this is not at all what I expected. I always thought it was some wonderful if slightly archaic nature writing full of observations on the weather, birds and creatures, growing things etc. Not really. It’s a lot more about politics (as they were back then), protests on slavery, umbrage at modern developments ruining mankind (there’s pages and pages about how the train makes people hurry and rush about), how government should or should not affect our lives, why people should be engaged in something useful and soul-lifting instead of just working to earn money, etc. He criticizes his fellow man a lot. He does mention a few birds here and there, how peaceful it is to just sit under the trees, how much he appreciates the simple life. But he wasn’t far off in the woods in isolation. Tons of people visited him all the time it sounds like, really curious what he was doing out there by himself. The train ran very close to his cabin, the pond was a regular fishing spot for many, farmers and kids out picking berries walked close by, and he could hear cattle in the adjacent fields. It was walking distance to the village. He eschewed coffee and other so-called luxuries to live pretty much just off what he grew or gathered (I think): mainly his beans, and fish he caught. I thought there I would relate, there’s a whole chapter about cultivating the bean plants and I\’m a gardener too, but nope. It starts out about hoeing the beans and how nicely meditative that task can be, but soon unravels into other lofty topics that supposedly relate to what bean plants with their nice broad leaves made him think of but I can’t make head or tails out of it.
That was my main problem. Thoreau is very much a philosopher and it either makes my mind wander, or go in circles, or I have to read a passage three, four, five times in a row and I still don’t get what he was saying. So many pages of this book I was actually thinking about something else as the printed words marched through my head unheeded. The parts I liked? where Thoreau describes in detail the ice on the pond, the air bubbles in it, the way it forms and later on breaks up in the springtime, the industry of hired people who come to cut blocks of it, harvesting for use in summer- people had ice-boxes back then, not fridges and freezers, so this was interesting to read how that was done and how it was stored to prevent melting. How mud makes weird shapes during the spring thaw (but again he turned this into some lyrical comparison I did not get). The voices of owls, a mouse that got used to his presence, the geese he observed on the pond and fish under the clear water. I liked reading how he undertook to plumb and measure the pond’s depth, as people in the vicinity claimed it was bottomless, but nobody had ever really tried find out. I liked a lot of his sentiments and agreed with many of his opinions on what’s valuable in life etc, but it sure was tough to wade through all the words. Philosophy and political rants are really not my thing.
Note on below: this is obviously one of those great books which I personally have difficulty appreciating. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it, though I do feel enriched by it. It was pretty hard to get through. If it had been easier and more enjoyable, definitely would have given it a 4. The publication dates noted span the five works in this volume.