Thursday, 11 July 2013

Good Book: Walden (2004 Yale Edition)

I tried to read this book when I was in high school, at the instigation of teachers who swore I was the living tulku of Henry David Thoreau. The brilliant American Transcendalist kicked my butt; his peripatetic sentences, cluttered with puns on European history, Greek and Latin classics, and Hindu scripture, run for days. Just the 26,000-word introductory digression is an admission ordeal worthy of Zen monasteries. It's also the reason that for years I only read excerpts.

Nor was I alone; even in Thoreau's (better educated, less fatuous) day, modest sales forced him to live off prosaic jobs and the support of wealthy friends. But when I came off the mountain, I was finally motivated to read this seminal work of hermit literature. Turns out it's a work of genius. Who knew?

Walden; or, Life in the Woods is the record of one man's classic eremitical experiment: from 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a primitive hut on eleven acres beside the pond of that name, situated outside Concord, Massachusetts. There he applied the timeless formula, living as close to the ground as possible, in order to minimise distractions from the Truth. (The book, which appeared in 1854, distils his experiences to a single year.)

Ango and advanced age haven't thinned Thoreau's dense paragraphs, but this time the rewards kept me hacking. Thoreau is the Elijah of our time, calling down the profligacy of commercial morality. His meditations on the hypocrisy of industrial culture, its lazy ethics and poverty-mill economics, are either exhilarating or depressing, depending on your perspective: a century and a half have made no dent in their relevance. Take his debunking of the myth that the rich repay in "job creation" what they cost society:

"Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there? You boast of spending a tenth part of your income in charity; maybe you should spend the nine tenths so, and done with it."

More masterful is a dissection of capitalist theoretics, in which Thoreau calculates the true cost of train fare to nearby Fitchburg. With accountant-like precision he audits the passenger's entire expenditure, and demonstrates at last that it's not only cheaper, but actually faster, to walk. "We do not ride the railroad," he concludes. "It rides upon us."

Walden positively hums with such wry reflections. Some have become famous:

"If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house to do me good, I would run for my life."

"In the long run, men hit only what they aim at."

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation [and go to the grave with the song still in them]."

It also carries a surprising tonnage of jokes:

"Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon's effects, for his life had not been ineffectual."

"…called a 'man of colour', as if he were discoloured…"

"Is [Sir John] Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so eager to find him?" (A bit of CanCon there.)

We don't normally think of Thoreau as a stand-up comic (Walden also contains one of the few toilet jokes in 19th-century literature), but it would not be farfetched to call him the George Carlin of antebellum America.

And that's just one facet of an enormously rich vein of insight. You also get Thoreau's detailed observation of flora, wildlife, and natural phenomena; his expertise on simple, joyful cuisine; his research in local history; his (occasionally racist; sorry, Ireland) encounters with other cultures; and his engaging reports on the daily-daily of livin' low.

I strongly advise, nay implore, readers to get the 2004 Yale edition of Walden, annotated study-Bible fashion by Jeffrey Cramer. (See photos.) His comprehensive notes, amounting to a second, parallel book, elucidate Thoreau's antiquated terminology, regionalisms, and scholarly allusions that were already obscure the day he wrote them. With Cramer's help, these lines not only cease to be stumbling blocks, they become some of the most enjoyable passages in the work.

Thoreau was neither the first hermit nor the last, but he remains one of the best. His literary power and sheer American modern-ness are gifts for our time. His masterpiece can be hard going for the first few pages, but once you pick up its rhythm, it's hard to put down. Don't forget to use a full sheet of paper for a bookmark, and have a pen handy to write down your favourite quotations.
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