“Walden; or, Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau

Not having been educated in North America I had heard of Thoreau only because the quotation (below) from this book was used in the movie “Dead Poets’ Society” –

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die; discover that I had not lived.”

At only 216 pages, his detailed account of his two years living at Walden Pond in a cabin in the woods won’t delay you long, but while you read it you’ll feel like you’re there in the forest with him. You watch him building his simple house, sowing his beans, studying the lake on his doorstep, and musing on topics like economy, solitude, clothing, sounds, and visitors.

He had plenty of visitors. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” I love that idea.  If more came, they stood and he had more than twenty in his single-roomed cabin more than once. I had assumed he lived a hermit’s life. But actually he used to walk into town most days, along the railway track, except during deep snows.

The sheer variety of concepts amazed me, and much of his advice is excellent. He tells readers to avoid new enterprises which require us to buy new clothes, but to try it in old clothes first. Everyone who bought new art sets, sushi kits, and exercise gear this January can relate to that idea.

He studied the ice on the pond in winter by lying down on it at all times of the day and stages of freezing to count the bubbles per inch. The wildlife, which became accustomed to him quickly, must have enjoyed that scene.

Having eaten fried rat when necessary, he believed that as civilisation progressed all men would stop eating meat. His largely vegetarian diet during his two years at the pond came from his economical but low-effort farming. He even gives the full accounts of his expenditure and income during the two years in order to convince others to try the experiment, because he believed we need to stop burdening ourselves with worldly goods to realise our full potential. Reading this in the aftermath of a major house-crash here made me realise how applicable much of his thinking is today.

This beautifully written, inspiring book should be read slowly and enjoyed as much for his ideas as for the language he uses. His love for Walden Pond shines through. He left the woods to try out a new life and to avoid being stuck in a rut. Clearly it remained with him forever, urging him, as he does the readers, to explore the vast worlds inside his own mind and soul, and to advance confidently in the direction of his dreams.

(read December 2011)

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Filed under autobiographical, The Best of the Books

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