If you asked me right now to choose a single book that everybody should read, especially young American adults, I would tell you Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I just finished reading this book myself last week; it’s been on my list for quite some time, and now I’m glad that I didn’t put it off any longer. It was even better than I was expecting.
So, why would I recommend it? Especially to young adult Americans? (Well, for starters on that last one, Thoreau writes early on in Walden, “Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students.” :)) Critics have hailed Walden as being the best work of prose in all American Literature; I think – as far as I can tell – that I would have to agree. (As an aside, I also think that Thoreau himself is one of the truest embodiment’s of the original American ideal that I have encountered, in literature or history class.) But aside from its critical acclaim, the whole vision of simplicity and thoughtful intentionality that Thoreau espouses as the ideal lifestyle is both stirring and sound.
The premise behind the book: Thoreau moved into a simple cabin that he built himself in the woods near Walden Pond just before his 28th birthday in July 1845. He lived there for two years, leaving in September of 1847. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods is a product of his time spent there, mostly edited from the journals that he kept while living by Walden Pond. It is philosophical; it is poetic; it describes the details and loveliness of Walden, the woods and wildlife surrounding it, and neighboring ponds; it is provocative with its presentation on Thoreau’s thoughts on a life well-lived.
It is profound. And it is beautiful. You should read it. 🙂
If you’re not convinced yet, perhaps one (or more) of the following excerpts will persuade you, or at least arouse some interest; if they fail to, then you probably wouldn’t like the book as a whole anyway.
I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course … If a man has faith, he will cooperate with equal faith everywhere; if he has not faith, he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. … When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam. But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been thy failures hitherto, ‘be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?’ … I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do … The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! … How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.
The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. ‘But,’ says one, ‘you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?’ I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, – farther and wider, – and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay. Let the thunder rumble; what if it threaten ruin to farmers’ crops? that is not an errand to thee. Take shelter under the cloud, while they flee to carts and sheds. Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs. … Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.
and, finally (but there’s SO much more!!)
The universe is wider than our views of it. … I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. … The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of me; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude not solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
…I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. …Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? …
Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. … Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? … However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. … The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a s corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. … Superfluous wealth can only buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul. … I delight to come to my bearings, – not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, – not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth [not to mention Twenty-First!] Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. … I love to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me; – not to hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less, – not suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me. It affords me no satisfaction to commence to spring an arch before I have got a solid foundation. … I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering; such a deed wold keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction, – a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.
I wrote in the beginning of this post (which now seems very far away, and no less so to you, I’m sure!) that I would recommend this book especially to young American adults. I said young because I believe it is easiest to apply the sort of things Thoreau is talking about at this stage in one’s life, and not a later one – easier at such a season to allow Thoreau’s philosophy, or any orientation towards the world, to influence the shape and direction of one’s lifestyle and choices. (And as I looked back over my copy of Walden – filled now with my penciled underlining’s and annotations – hunting up quotations for this post, I realized how often Thoreau does address himself specifically to students and student-applicable situations throughout this book.) I added the extra qualifier of American chiefly because Thoreau was an American, and Walden is a work of American literature – one of the best. Also, seeing as I myself am an American, and therefore an American reader, I feel best qualified to recommend books to other American readers.
But I’d recommend this book to anyone, really; young, middle-aged, or old, American or not. It can speak to all. And impact all, even if only in a very small way…and if one allows it. Hardness or tenderness of heart – the receptivity and fertility of the soil of our lives to good seeds – is a quality irrespective of age.