Saturday, February 10, 2007

Working through Walden

I am part of the way through Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but ended up throwing it across the room, as I realised I did not have the faintest idea what he was on about. His prose style is most elliptical and confused, and he crashes through several registers of speech in every paragraph. I have also taken a profound dislike to his superior 'I am right, everybody else is wrong' brand of adolescent omniscience. Perhaps because he reminds me of myself as a young man. Or now. Ouch.
Still, I am sticking with it, because
1) It is read by the incomparable Gordon Mackenzie, who could make the telephone book sound like a cliffhanger, and because he obviously 'gets' it enough to record it, so I must have misunderstood it.
2) I understand Americans revere this book, and I wonder if it will give me any insight into the whole American 'self-reliance' thing, being as I am a European 'non-self reliance' type of guy.
Gotta ... keep ... going ...

7 comments:

jimmowatt said...

I'm right with you on Walden.
I find almost nothing of substance in there.
I gave up on it.

ChrisHughes said...

Yeah. (weary sigh). Still, I did chuckle at "Always be suspicious of enterprises that require new clothes."

Stewart Wills said...

Well, I can't allow this to stand . . . ;-)

Seriously, I'm sorry you're not enjoying Walden. This has been one of my key "personal" books for years -- there's even an old photo of me reading it while nestling my infant daughter in my arm (though admittedly I haven't re-read it for a long time).

Having said that, I do admit that it's difficult to express why this book so captivates me. I will say that personally I find the writing rich and involving, and often bracingly ironic with respect to the increasingly mechanized society that Thoreau was reacting to. And there are phrases from the book that have really stuck with me -- not just "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," but also "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in," and "In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high."

So I guess I'm smitten -- though I can readily understand why it wouldn't appeal to everyone. In any event, hope you make it through to the end -- if for no other reason than to stay on track to 52 books a year! (By my count, though, you're way ahead; looks like 10 books for 2007 so far, including Walden. That's a hell of a lot better than I'm doing . . .)

(Sorry about the long comment.)

ChrisHughes said...

I think the shock for me in Walden is the misanthropy. Yes, there are many quotes which have lovely ring. But the overall mood of the work is that we are surrounded by fools, who sleep walk through life. It just reminds me of how I felt about the world, before I had any responsibilities. I think Mark Twain said something about his father being a fool when he was sixteen, but by the time he had reached twenty-one, he had come a long way. I feel that way about most people - as I have matured, I can respect other people's modes of life, and life choices, which I mocked as a younger, dumber man. I am uncomfortable about this aspect of my youthful character, and expect I don't like hearing myself in Thoreau.
And, as for everyone having to read Homer in Greek - what nonsense. And I have met people who lived as Thoreau did, and not by choice, who were illiterate, and in possession of a lot more wisdom, and kindness to their fellow man than he displays.
Perhaps you need to be the right age for this book - like Catcher in the Rye, you have a few years, and then it is lost to you forever.
Still - I haven't finished it yet, and I am anticipating what I will say in my review.
Thanks for your long post (the longer the better!), and sorry for my long reply!

Stewart Wills said...

Excellent points all. As I mentioned, I last read Walden a long time ago; maybe I should have a fresh look, and see if my own reaction has changed!

Gord Mackenzie said...

Chris, first off thanks for your kind words!

As for Walden, I recorded it not because I believe it to be a great book, but because it holds a special place in my heart. As with Stewart, I read it when I was young, and it struck a chord in me. Perhaps it was at a time in my life when I myself wanted to run away and live alone in the woods.

In any event, your points are well taken, and I certainly found recording it to be rather tough going at times (honestly, I think I may have skipped certain portions when I was younger... there's only so much interest you can muster regarding the price of beans in 1849).

However, I am also afraid that I may have overplayed Thoreau's pedantry and underplayed his humour in my recording. I believe his tone is often lighter than I delivered it. The superior tone that you dislike may, in fact, be mine!

I believe that Thoreau, while undoubtedly a tad cranky at times, was no misanthrope. I think he shows respect for wisdom (and that education is not a requirement for it), and a respect for the difficulty of those who must, of necessity, live in worse conditions than he chose.

I hold great respect for Thoreau for his stance against slavery and against the United States' invasion of Mexico and policy of manifest destiny.

At any rate, if you can accept Thoreau for who and what he is, there are some moments in the book (for me at least) of startling clarity. There are passages of Walden that I carry with me and that have had a lasting impact on my life.

I agree that I may have had a completely different opinion of the book had I read it for the first time at my current stage of life... but I didn't, so I can't help but see it in the light of those earlier days.

At any rate, I look forward to your full review, and I do hope you manage to make it through with out too much pain!

ChrisHughes said...

Gordon!
A hearty welcome, to a voice I know so well. Since I wrote this post above, I have started to have a change of heart. I haven't finished the book yet, but I am beginning to see Thoreau as more of a provocateur, when at first I was expecting a worked out program, if you know what I mean. He confronts you, something you accept as a young man, but get offended by it as you turn into a crusty old baldy, like me. He makes you justify your choices.
And you reading has plenty of ironic humour in it - something that has sustained me very well!
Thanks for dropping by!
Chris