In observance of the sesquicentennial of Thoreau’s death, I read Walden for the third time. I won’t be sharing this on Facebook, out of respect for the author. This is a fellow who, long before there were telephones or even typewriters, calls his own time period “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century” and questions the need to build a railroad. What would he make of social media? “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.”
Of course there is no end of quotable lines from him skewering mainstream society, but his basic ideas are still as rock solid as they were in 1854: 1) simplifying one’s life brings more satisfaction than acquiring fame and fortune, and–especially important–allows one to work less and have more leisure time to pursue one’s talents and interests, 2) spending time in nature is critically important to sane living, and 3) understanding oneself is more important than trying to keep up with the outside world. Returning to the book now that I am older, I do not have to believe him; I know these principles are true.
I found the narrative a little sluggish in some parts–such as page after page of Thoreau’s close observation of the characteristics of pond ice–but when he gets on a rant on the misplaced values of society, he’s fresh and highly readable. I have been inspired since my student days by his challenge “to live deep and suck out all marrow of life . . . to cut a broad swath and shave close.” Walden‘s first and last chapters especially should remain required reading for students. Students see so much advertising encouraging consumption that they may never have encountered a well-stated case for simplicity. In our time, we can add another powerful support for it: we must reduce our carbon footprint in order to address climate change and the precarious state of the environment.
What would our society be like if we cut our consumption and hours worked (“life near the bone is sweetest”), along with our endless idle time online, to think deeply and to observe nature closely? Listen to the guy who spends hours happily watching the formation and melting of pond ice.