I have wanted to read Walden for a long time but I don't know really why. Probably a result of literature classes in high school, or maybe it was from philosophy. Lately it has been calling out to me more than usual though, but I was putting it off until I would have a good electronic reading device. With it being available on Project Gutenberg and all.
However, it is now year 2010 and there are still no proper devices. E-ink screens the size of a pocket-book, when an all round device should have letter or A4 reading surface (for scientific texts!), and don't get me started on Apple's iPad. An amazing computer hardware locked down to the usefulness of a toaster.
Hard to find a device that isn't locked down or will need to be replaced within a year or two.
Anyway, it was easier to just get the damned book. I am currently living in north America so it felt right to finally read Thoreau's account of the years he spent at the lake Walden in Massachusetts.
The book is roughly organized as one year passing - season by season - but it is clear that the events told happened during several years. In any case the events and the brief characters introduced are chiefly used by Thoreau as a means to tell his philosophy and reasons behind leaving the civilization of his day behind and living in a cottage by the Walden pond.
Thoreau's text is part a quest for meaning to someone who might not have felt that he could fit in to the village life. Mostly however the author stands out has having clear ideas of how he thinks the world works, and what to do to lead a better life. Sometimes strong opinions are presented and argued for. The first chapter is on the economy of his stay, and he even provides an account on expenses and gains.
It is also easy to see that Henry David Thoreau was inspired of the scientific and intellectual values of his age. He names plants and animals with their Latin names, and many of his labours in agriculture and living is in the spirit of the scientific method. Indeed he names his whole venture as an "experiment".
He does come across as a bit of a nerd sometimes however; having firm opinions on how things should be done, but with very little practical experience or sometimes even intuition. Thoreau does not take advice from the local farmer on using fertilizer for his crops, or how to prepare his land. He is eating the simplest of meals, and wears what seems to me as a single set of clothing. By evidence it did work out for him just fine, and he did alright in his cottage, but I get the feeling it is not always a judged rational choice, but maybe out of necessity. Sometimes he also show a lack of understanding towards those choosing not to live in the same spartan way.
I agree with Thoreau in many things. I feel sympathy for his longing away from the gossip, waste, and madness. Be it of the small village or society at large. The freedom of not owning more than actually needed, and the joy of providing for yourself.
Some other ideas feel much like a utopia in a way. Thoreau seems dependent on the same society he partially wish to be apart from. At times he seems to long for the company of others in the village and so goes there - for he lives within walking distance. He loathes the railway but at the same time one can sense the comfort and connection to civilization he attains by having it close.
Thus, I ask myself if Thoreau would be free if there was nothing to be free from? I think in theory that is the ultimate goal, but could it happen? Could Thoreau have done without his society if all others where living like him as well? There lies an enigma: can personal freedom be achieved for every person? Or does the freedom of one decrease as it is attained by another? That does not mean that the sense of freedom and independence should be ignored. On the contrary they should be strived for.
This book is a classic in many ways, most importantly because I think its values might be more timely today than even in Thoreau's own time. When I read it I thought I could see the traces of its influence in much of today's society, but warped. Surprisingly, Walden's most attainable measures of freedom; simplicity and minimalism, seems to have been lost in our world of owning and throwing away. If you have the time why don't you give it a try? It is even free at Project Gutenberg.