on September 26, 2004
This is one of the most influential books in American history. I picked it up for the first time in thirty years only to realize that Throreau's philosophy had long ago permeated my being. I remember being blown away by my first reading more than half a century ago, but with each immersion new depths are achieved.
Thoreau sought both authenticity and simplicity in his life. He never abandoned Concord and the real world but merely sought refuge at Walden to plumb the depths of his being. Serious introspection and brilliant writing show each of us the the way to our own core. Can we stand the examination? That is for each of us to determine.
The Transcendentalists may never have been able to define their philosphy, but what remains of it more than a century after the movement's passing can be summed up in Thoreau's always upbeat outlook of "...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet success unexpected in common hours."
One cannot read Walden without gaining confidence in one's ability to change direction in life and optimism about the future. We do not have to live lives of conformity and quiet desparation. "In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high."
There has never been a book that better expresses American optimism, and there is no reason for us to lose confidence now. Simplify and be as close to authentic as you can be and all will turn out well. Oh, and while you're at it question authority.
If there could be a six star book, this would be my candidate.
on January 7, 2000
Walden, what is it? Is it a book on nature, a book on ecology, a book on human nature, a prescient description of the struggle between modern civilization and the land that nurtured it, a critique of mankind, a string of quotable gems, an account of a mind, or, like Star Wars, a way of slipping a deep and human spirituality into someone else's mind without their recognizing it? It depends on who is doing the reading and when. Read it for any of these purposes, and it will not disappoint. If you've never read it, read it. If you read it for class years ago and hated it, read it again. This may be the most subtle, multi-layered and carefully worked piece of literature you'll ever find. By keeping the down-to-earth tone (no doubt in reaction to the high-flying prose of his friend, R.W. Emerson) Thoreau pulls a Columbo, and fools us into thinking he's writing simply about observing nature, living in a cabin, or sounding a pond. Somehow by the end of Walden, however, you may find it is your self he has sounded. People have accused Thoreau of despising mankind, but read deeper and you will discover he loved people well enough to chide us, show us our faults (admitting he's as bad as the worst of us), and give to all of us this wonderful gift, a book you could base your life on. There is more day to dawn, he reminds us at the end: the sun is but a morning star.
on December 22, 2000
As a professor of philosophy, I at one time regularly took classes of first year college students to Concord for a week-long intensive seminar on Emerson and Thoreau. I eventually abandoned the seminar, because I discovered that each class was progressively more hostile to what these two wonderful persons stood for. The ..... reviews written by young people of this edition of _Walden_ are, then, disconcertingly familiar to me. I obviously disagree with their evaluations of the book and of Thoreau's character. But what's interesting is why they have such a negative reaction to a book written, as Thoreau says, for young people who haven't yet been corrupted by society. What is it about the culture in which we live that encourages such hostility to his eloquent plea for simplicity? It's too facile to suggest that the backlash is motivated only by resentful pique at what's seen as Thoreau's condemnation of contemporary lifestyles, although I suspect this is part of the explanation. I'd be interested in reading the thoughts here of other readers who are likewise puzzled and disturbed by "Generation Y's" negative response to Thoreau.
WALDEN has rarely been out-of-print since its first publication in 1854. Copies come in all sizes, shapes and price ranges. Today's Thoreauvians have three ANNOTATED versions of WALDEN to choose from. Each one provides same-page explanatory notes that help the reader interpret the sometimes esoteric references in Henry David Thoreau's original text. The three books are "The Annotated Walden" (edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, 1970), "Walden: An Annotated Edition" (edited by Walter Harding, 1995), and "Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition" (edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, 2004). Each one has at least one map of Concord and/or Walden Pond. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Each one has appeal for a devoted audience.
"Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition" by Jeffrey S. Cramer was released in August 2004, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the original publication date. Cramer is the curator of collections for The Thoreau Institute and therefore has access to some of the best primary and secondary source material available -- including Walter Harding's notes. In addition to the text of WALDEN, this volume includes a few "extras": an introduction to Thoreau's life but only as it applies to his cabin stay and WALDEN writing; a bibliography; notes on the text; and a detailed index. The explanatory notes -- the essence of an annotated edition -- are quite extensive. They are set off from the WALDEN text with page-within-a-page graphic detailing and are easy to read. Cramer did not merely merge Van Doren Stern's and Harding's previous notes with those from David Gorman Rohman's dissertation. His analysis at times echoes that of Harding, but when it does, Cramer often goes one step further with a definition or citation. He has thoughtfully used a "Notes on the Text" appendix to outline HDT's wording differences in the various drafts of the work. Thus his annotations are not bogged down by minor editorial alterations that the casual reader may not care about. Unlike Harding, Cramer refrains from expressing personal opinions and lets the research speak for itself. An added bonus is a reproduction of Edward Emerson's map of Walden Pond which shows the location of Thoreau's bean-field as Waldo's son remembered it. The only cumbersome quality in this publication is the placement of WALDEN chapter titles at the bottom of the pages instead of the top. This otherwise stellar volume is beautifully presented with a cover photo of the cabin reproduction as it currently stands in Walden Pond State Recreation Area. A classy edition by all accounts.
Lining up the three versions side by side is an interesting experiment, best conducted on a rainy summer day when no other work has appeal. Let's use two well-known and oft-debated passages for an initial sample interpretive comparison.
"I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail." ("Economy") Do those three animals stand for actual individuals in Thoreau's life? Or does this passage simply refer to Life's losses? Philip Van Doren Stern devotes a page-length note to this paragraph. He mentions a few of the major interpretations and refers readers to the bibliography for more. His conclusion is: "Since there is no clear explanation, each reader will have to supply his own." Walter Harding offers three pages in a special appendix that covers all the major theories. At the end, he too suggests that "each reader is free to interpret them as he wishes." Jeffrey Cramer's paragraph cites two similiar excerpts found in other Thoreau pieces, and his explanation states that "no analysis has been generally accepted as valid." So the three men agree: we have to decide for ourselves what we think of the story.
"There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection." ("Conclusion") Is the parable that follows that opening sentence based on some of the Eastern texts that Thoreau was fond of reading at the time? Or is it a thinly-disguised depiction of his own struggle to perfect the final WALDEN manuscript? Philip Van Doren Stern simply says that "no one has been able to find a source for the legend" and agrees with Arthur Christy that it is an allegory about Thoreau's own life. Walter Harding offers several possible origins of the legend but eventually cites and agrees with Christy's allegory statement. Jeffrey Cramer devotes just a two-sentence annotation, concluding with "It is generally agreed that the following fable is by Thoreau." In this instance, Cramer has the benefit of time over his colleagues. Most Thoreauvians have come to the same realization during the past decade after much gnashing of teeth.
Explanatory differences are more pronounced at other various junctures in the text. Each man obviously was intrigued by certain references more than others. I can say that overall, I found Jeffrey Cramer's annotations to be the most helpful of the three. Maybe someday someone will have the courage to tell all the makers of posters, bumper stickers, and t-shirts that "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in" is NOT about fishing at all.
Every school and public library should own at least one of these annotated editions. Academic libraries will want at least two of the three versions. If you want a book that has a lot more HDT than just WALDEN, find a used copy of the Philip Van Doren Stern book. If you want to hear from expert Walter Harding, choose his. Individuals who want the most comprehensive interpretation should go with the newest volume by Jeffrey Cramer. It's a worthy addition to the Thoreau legacy.
on November 22, 2003
I had not read this growing up but wish I had. This is such a wonderful book. There are not many pictures in here - just a hand drawn map in one part of the book. Its excerpts from Thoreau's journal over the two year period when he lived on Walden's pond. He did not live like a recluse (he went in to Concord almost every day) so its not a book about living alone per se. Its more about reflecting on life, considering why one "is" and recognizing the beauty and mystery of nature around us every day, everywhere. Thoreau talks of regular daily things too like what it costs him to farm, or having cider, or building a chimney. The writing style is conversational, open, honest. He doesn't try to get tricky with words, he just tells it like he sees it. It's so beautiful. For anyone (like me) who indeed sees nature as their "religion" or sees the Great Spirit in every leaf, tree and bug, this book will be adored. So many wonderful messages, thoughts, woven throughout this book. Its an incredible work.
on September 8, 2004
Reading "Walden" changed my life forever. Thoreau is perhaps the greatest American spiritual genius ever. This book inspired me to write my first book, which took five years--that is how deeply inspired I was by "Walden". So many of today's spiritual gurus are lightweights compared to Thoreau. He offers up a highly original take on the spiritual wisdom of the ages, not the mind candy you often find in today's books. While I found it a challenging read, it was worth it. If you are in the market for a spiritual paradigm shift, read "Walden"--and re-read it if you first read it under the age of 25. The pictures only make this spiritual classic better.
on October 19, 2009
On my short list of all time favorite books, this one is up there at the top. It doesn't attain the #1 spot, but it's up there, definitely top five.
I think it is very interesting to read the reviews and notice that the vast majority of the bad reviews are coming from the young, mainly teenagers who were made to read this in school. The vast majority of the good reviews are coming from the older and the more wizened.
I think the youth of today are just so totally enamored with technology and what's cool and popular. I know I was when I was 17. But then you grow older and hopefully more wise, you live life a little and you no longer care about what's cool or what's popular, you are no longer so enamored with technology and you begin to see how technology is actually killing us. You have some perspective to temper the youthful idealism.
I just loved everything about this book, but I never read it until my 30's. If I had read it in my teens, I probably would have thought it pretty stupid.
I think Thoreau was a genius, both with words and how he lived his life. He did not live on Walden Pond his entire life, by the way. Walden pond was an experiment, not so much a way of life. His time there was meant to show people how superfluous most of our lives are, that it can be simplified, to our soul's benefit, not to mention the benefit of our fellow human beings and the world at large.
He was not a stupid man, he was educated at Harvard. He knew that his way was not the way everyone could or would live. He was not advocating a new social order. He was merely trying to prove a point, that people's lives are way too complicated.
It has been said that Thoreau was the anti-Benjamin Franklin. Realize that even in his day, Thoreau was ridiculed. It is no surprise that he would be ridiculed today, mainly by those who just simply could not live without their iPods.
I read Walden as an ideal and it made me sad. I would love to live my life in the way he did on Walden Pond, but I'm just not so sure how possible it is to live that way in today's world or even how desirable. There has to be a happy medium. You don't have to run out and live as a hermit in order to be able to appreciate Thoreau. There is beauty in the middle way, one can learn to make small changes in their lives, to try and live more simply, as many today are trying to do, to lighten our footprint on this earth, for the betterment of all.
I do believe that people's lives are too complicated, that they can't see the forest for the trees,that their lives are only about making more money so they can buy more things. They have lost their way in the world, they have forgotten, if they even even knew, what life is about.
But running out to live by yourself is not the solution either. I am reminded of the story of Christopher McCandless, whose story was made into the movie Into the Wild. He learned too late that true happiness is not real unless shared. That without love, life is meaningless. And THAT is the reason that living on Walden Pond by yourself is not the answer. We are here on this earth for each other, to love. Without love, life is meaningless.
To live on Walden Pond by yourself for a period of time, to find yourself, or to prove a point, is all well and good, but as a permanent way of life, it's not utopia.
And Thoreau knew this, after his time in the woods, he went back to civilization, but he never lost his soul and he knew how the soul was refreshed... with love, with learning, and with nature.
on February 28, 2000
Walter Harding was one of the greatest Thoreau scholars. His annotations include explanations of puns I hadn't understood, sources of quotes and references in the text, and information about Thoreau's time. I also learned that one of my favorite places in Concord was referred to by Thoreau as Fairyland Pond.
The book also includes a map of the area in Thoreau's time, reproductions of HDT's manuscript pages, drawings and excerpts from his journal, and his map of Walden Pond with water depths he determined.
I wouldn't say the book is perfect--there are still a few obscure references without notes, and some notes for points that are obvious--but it's as close as anyone is likely to come.
Be sure to also read Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau, a great biography.
On a family vacation many years ago, I visited Walden Pond and walked all around it. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau's Walden, the Walden Woods Project published, in 2004, this illustrated edition of the work with stunning color photographs by Scott Miller of Walden Pond and its environs. The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Walden Pond and to the legacy of Thoreau. I found this book a fitting memorial of my walk around Walden Pond and of my earlier readings of Walden. The lovely edition, photographs, and memories inspired me to turn again to Thoreau's book.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 -- 1862) lived at Walden Pond, Masachusetts from July, 1845 -- September, 1847, in a cabin he built himself on a tract of land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was two miles from Concord, Massachusetts and one mile from his nearest neighbor. A railroad passed near the pond, and it was frequented regularly by farmers, hunters, picnickers, and others. During the two years, Thoreau left Walden Pond at times to visit friends in Concord, to lecture, and to visit other ponds and sites in the area. He made no pretense of being entirely isolated. In his book, Walden, published in 1854, Thoreau described the first year of his life at Walden Pond (he tells us that the second year was much the same) and his reasons for living there. Much of the book was written at Walden Pond, and Throreau also wrote other works there.
The book is short but it is written in a dense, difficult and condensed style with many long, complex sentences. It is also highly allusive and shows Thoreau's learning in classical literature and his interest in Eastern thought and religion. It is filled with many short, pithy, and provocative comments which have become proverbial in American literature.
In the opening and closing chapters of the book, Thoreau describes his motivations for living at Walden Pond and abandoning the life of commerce. For Thoreau, most people are owned by their possessions. He saw a need to live with little encubrance in order to understand himself and find inner peace. "Simplify, simplify, simplify" was his goal. In one of my favorite sentences of the book, he states (p. 67) "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." Then, towards the end of the book, Thoreau recounts some of the lessons he had learned in the following passage:
"We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it, and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring."(p/253)
In the middle sections of the book, Throreau describes his life in the woods, again with recognition of his substantial interactions with other people during the time. (He was not a hermit.) He describes the books he read, his activites at his cabin, Walden Pond and woods, the changes of the seasons, and the plants and animals. The pond and its creatures are described with great detail, but Thoreau gives even more attention to internalizing his experiences and explaining their significance to his readers.
Scott Miller's beatiful photographs of Walden Pond add a great deal to this edition. They are well-placed to correspond with the discussion in the text, and they illuminate Thoreau's descriptive passages. The photographs, and the book itself, brought back reading and visiting memories and made me want to see Walden Pond again.
But much as Walden is revered for its descriptions of nature, the book remains for me primarily internalized and intropsective. Thoreau has many polemical things to say which will not, and should not, appeal to all readers. But the book documents the effort of an individual to try to understand his life, to reflect, and to understand change. As I have suggested, it is not an anti-social book as Thoreau was never far removed from friends and company. But it is a book about understanding one's life and learning not to be afraid of solitude or of being with oneself.
on September 24, 2001
Unbelievable! I went to Barnes & Noble the other day to purchase a copy of Walden. They had the Cliff's Notes but not the book. Is that a profound comment on our times, or just the last straw that persuaded me to write this review?
I have read Walden from cover to cover many times. I have read excerpts from it many more times. I have never found it boring or tedious, as some reviewers have. In fact, I have found it to be one of the few books worth re-reading on a frequent basis. Why?
Our times do not differ significantly from Thoreau's. He saw a society enthralled with "progress," such as the ability to travel from place to place via railroad at the astonishing speed of 35 miles per hour, without any idea of what to do when they arrived. He travelled by foot, and saw the life that others hurried by.
Has it ever seemed to you that the acquisition of ever-more-expensive habits and tastes, and the need to work longer and harder to satisfy them, is ultimately a waste of the precious gift of time and life that each of us is blessed with? Do you wonder how (or if) people who live without televison, video games, and automobiles can be happy or fulfilled? How would you fare if you were stripped of your possessions but still retained the ability to obtain the necessaries of life? Could you treat that as an opportunity to discover more about what it means to live?
If any of these are questions that have nibbled at your psyche, read Walden. If you love nature and its intricacies, read Walden. If you've ever thought about through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, read Walden. If you think modern-day life can't be improved on, or you want a quick read that will entertain you for a few hours, read something else. And if you read Walden and don't find it meaningful or profound, perhaps you will find another book that will remain as significant an influence in your life as Walden has been in mine.