I cannot remember having to reassess a book as often, and as radically as Walden. I started thinking that it was a long harangue against the world. Then I thought it was a book about the beauty of nature, which is what I had expected. And then it revealed itself, in the very last few paragraphs, to be a book about individuality, and the need of every human to be him or herself, and not follow the dictates of convention.
As such, I disown my earlier impression, which I prematurely made known. This is a beautiful, but challenging book, which I am very grateful to have read. The prose style is difficult to my ear, but it is like a dialect that is gradually acquired. Certain sentences leap out as worthy of contemplation. Others are very funny, but from a humourist with a wit as dry as dust. The whole book is quite an experience.
The first two (long) chapters were what threw me off. Thoreau seemed so full of contradictions, so angry, so shrill and bitter, that I found him very challenging, which I am sure was exactly the point. I was constantly having to justify my life choices to myself, in fact analyse every precept and principle. I found this experience uncomfortable, as this is not something I am used to doing with such rigour, at least not since I got married and had kids. Surely no-one could criticise MY life choices? I now see Thoreau as being like a sergeant in charge of some new recruits; he has to break them first before he can work with them.
The meat of the book shows the fruits of Thoreau's decision to live alone in the woods, on the banks of Walden pond. He becomes completely in tune with his environment, and develops a familiarity with natural processes which is fascinating to hear. A modern human knows their daily routine backwards, a journey to work, for example or how to work a television remote. Thoreau has that intimacy of knowledge with the bubbles in the ice on the surface of Walden pond, with the insects that live there, the feeding habits of the fish, and so on. No one piece of this knowledge is remarkable in itself, but what is remarkable is the totality of it, and the sacrifices he was willing to make, or felt it was necessary to make, to acquire it. He made me ashamed of myself. As Woody Allen said, I am at two with nature.
But the payoff is at the very end. All the way through, I was asking: "If all this is so wonderful, why did you leave after two years?" His answer, as I understand it, is that the pond is not the point. Even nature is not the point. Life is the point, and you have to drink it to the dregs. And that, whatever your Walden pond happens to be, to make sure that you inhabit it as absolutely as he did his. I intend to, with a renewed determination.
This is a solo recording, by Gordon Mackenzie, who I praised on an earlier post, and, indeed, were it not for his sympathetic reading I would never have got through the 'Boot camp' potion of the book. It is a book I will never forget, that I will recommend to others, and one which I owe the knowledge of completely to him. He has a great voice, he loves great books, and he chooses to make both free to all comers. Thank you, Gordon.
I keep having further thoughts about this book, and perhaps will post here again on some of them. However, my next book will be "Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy, another fan of Thoreau.