Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Nonfiction Review: Walden

This spring, I read Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau by Ben Shattuck, a beautifully-written memoir about the author taking six walks (really, five walks and one canoe trip) that Thoreau described in his books and journals. The memoir included excerpts of Thoreau's writing, and that inspired me to finally read Thoreau for myself. Walden by Henry David Thoreau was my first book read for Nonfiction November, and while it was a bit of a rocky start, I ended up enjoying this chronicle of his time spent in an isolated cabin he built himself, on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

Walden begins with a 73-page chapter titled Economy, in which he explains why he wrote the book. Unfortunately, he goes on to complain, criticize, and ... well, rant about the "modern" ways of living in general and how people wouldn't need to spend their lives earning money if they would just stop buying so much unnecessary stuff (my husband's new favorite word is frippery). He's got a point, but I was relieved when that very long chapter finally ended, and he moved onto his time actually living in the cabin at Walden. As I had hoped, he beautifully describes how he immersed himself in the natural world. He talks about how he spent his time, what it was like to live in the small, rustic cabin (he lived there for two years but condensed the narrative into a single year), and his detailed observations of nature. He portrays every aspect of the natural world: the trees and plants, the pond itself, and birds, animals, and insects living around and with him. His narrative moves through each season of a year, sharing how this small ecosystem around him changed and the varying beauty in the different seasons. In one chapter, his very apt descriptions of the bizarre way a squirrel moves had me laughing out loud and reading the section to my husband.

As I mentioned, in that first section--and occasionally in later chapters--Thoreau gets wrapped up in criticizing the way others live. He comes across as arrogant and privileged in those parts (clearly, he himself has never actually been poor or had any real responsibilities). Thankfully, the rest of the book, about three-quarters of it, were as I had hoped, with beautiful nature writing and in-depth observations of the natural world. I love the outdoors and have myself experienced many times the sense of peace and joy that come from being immersed in nature, so I could relate to his experiences living at Walden. In fact, I read part of this book while camping, sitting outside with my book in the woods, overlooking a small lake; I highly recommend reading this outdoors if you can. I loved his descriptions of the seasonal changes, the sights and sounds of nature, and his experience of solitude. My book is filled with dog-eared pages of beautiful passages I wanted to come back to. His writing--about nature and about simple living--often touched me and made me think. I loved this description of the changing colors in fall:

"Already, by the first of September, I had seen two or three small maples turned scarlet across the pond, beneath where the white stems of three aspens diverged, at the point of a promontory, next the water. Ah, many a tale their color told! And gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake. Each morning the manager of this gallery substituted some new picture, distinguished by more brilliant or harmonious coloring, for the old upon the walls."

I read another short passage about fall in one of my Friday Reads videos, if you want to listen. It's a dense book that took me two weeks to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed most of it and am glad to have finally experienced Thoreau for myself. If you'd like a taste of his writing in a much shorter book that is delightful on its own, I recommend Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau by Ben Shattuck. Or just skip over the ranty bits in Walden and immerse yourself in the beauty of Thoreau's Walden Pond.

384 pages, Clydesdale Classics

This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:


Mount TBR Challenge

Back to the Classics - Classic set in a place you'd like to visit

Nonfiction Reader Challenge

Fall Into Reading Challenge - Classic


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  1. Too bad that the entry into this book is off putting, but I'm glad you found the majority of the book satisfying.

    1. I'm glad I finally read it, Helen!