Mark Twain said, “A classic is something everybody wants to read and doesn’t want to read.” That’s a good response to one of the most famous books in American literature: “Walden,” written by Henry David Thoreau. Some call it “Walden Pond” but I think that’s only because it sounds better. It was first published in 1854 and is still being printed today, over 250 years later. I came across a copy of it at Goodwill and purchased it because — yes, like would-be writers of a snobbishly arrogant behavior — I’ve always thought I should want to read it.
I’ve read some contradictory responses to the book online where one person calls it “One of the most influential and compelling books in American literature,” while another will say “if you find yourself having difficulty sleeping, this book is a fantastic cure for insomnia.” This, in turn, is refuted by considering Thoreau’s ideas about simplicity and spiritual cleanliness to be as relevant today as they were in the 1840s, which is then countered by those who might say reading Walden was kind of like eating bran flakes: you know it’s good for you and to some degree you enjoy the wholesomeness of it but it’s not always particularly exciting.
Walden is essentially the diary and the philosophy of a man who lived by himself in a cabin he built by himself on the shore of the lake called Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts for — as he stated it — two years, two months and three days. Once I returned home with the book, I placed it next to my lift chair and began to read occasional snatches of it. As a true snob, I was irritated by the fact the book’s former owner had used a marking pen on the first three pages of the book before giving up. That wasn’t enough, though, to stop me from beginning to read, in small amounts, what is considered a “classic.” I’ll confess that I soon fell from grace on that point. I underlined a few passages at the beginning of the book, just like the reader of it before me had done. I made one concession, though, which was to use only a pencil and not a ballpoint pen when I made notes in it.
It wasn’t until I was finally getting near the halfway point in it when I began to recognize why it has such a confusing reputation about the contents and I found myself going back to places I had already skimmed past in order to better understand what he was trying to get across to the reader.
In one way, he might have been compared to a “hippy” in our not too distant past. He built his cabin by himself and furnished it with the necessary fixtures for roughly $20 total. Of course that was, as I said, over 250 years ago. He cleared enough land to grow vegetables for his own use and for sale to others. He had access to as many fish as he wanted and also small animals in the surrounding forest. Thinking back, I don’t remember what his method was in obtaining and wearing clothing for at least winter weather when the lake froze over, thick enough to be cut by crews into slabs for use when needed in warmer months.
I read Walden all the way to the end, but I’ll confess, it was tough going in the latter pages where he concentrated on his philosophy of life. But there are still those who maintain they understand what that philosophy was, so who am I to say anything different. Let me just say that he was a “loner,” a lifestyle which I do not endorse.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.