Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Original Slacker: Thoreau's "Walden"

Many years ago, in a small New England town, by a small pond, a man lived in a small house that he had built with his own two hands. He grew beans on a small patch of land.

This is a very simple story, and, when condensed into this form, not very exciting at all.

However, it is the basis for one of the great works of American literature, Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau didn't have any great adventures during his time at Walden Pond, nor did he really exert any great influence on the world at the time. He didn't dedicate himself to literary or artistic pursuits, or anything else, for that matter.

Thoreau was an intelligent and talented young man at the time. He wrote well, when he put his mind to it, and actually dabbled successfully in matters of engineering and manufacturing. On the other hand, he didn't care about making money, social advancement or leaving a lasting legacy.

In short, he was a stereotypical slacker.

This is not to say that Hank Thoreau was a bad person, or that his choice of lifestyle was in any way something to be looked down on. It's just that he didn't feel compelled to live up to the standards set by his contemporaries. His desire, in his two years at Walden, was to see how little he actually needed to survive and be happy. It turned out that a man, or at least a man like Thoreau, was capable of leading a very satisfying life with hardly anything at all.

Since Thoreau's time, we like to think that we've come a long way. However, maybe if Thoreau were around today, he'd point out that we really haven't gone anywhere. We're just spinning around the same circle in a bigger, faster vehicle.

Walden is kind of a travelogue. Although Thoreau never actually goes more than a few miles, he takes the reader through a foreign land. That this exotic locale happens to be the village of Concord Mass. and the surrounding woods rather than some far off kingdom is irrelevant. Thoreau looks at familiar surroundings with a sense of wonder, and relays his adventures to us as a seasoned travel reporter, chronicling his discoveries with triumph and his setbacks with wry humor.

Although the language may seem a bit dense to the modern ear, and full of archaic measures and references (how far is a "rod" anyway? Look it up, it's about 16.5 feet, or the length of a typical canoe), Thoreau's prose is still lively and vibrant to those willing to dive in.

Walden is on my short list of books to read every year. It's entertainment, food for thought, and most of all, a reality check. Well worth the price of admission.


Rob Burns said...

I've marked all my favoourite nuggets of wisdom in a dog-eared copy.

I go back to it often - because basically his thing is about quality of life and not driving yourself into the ground.


Matt DeBlass said...

I think I may have gone through three or four copies myself. I reread it every year, and it seems like in between I often either lose it or give it away to someone who's never read it.

It has become something of a reality check for me. I often come back to it when I've got life and career decisions to make.