“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”
Henry David Thoreau
Talking with my son Alex the other night, I was excited to hear that he was reading Walden for one of his college courses and really enjoying it. What’s more fun than having a chat about a book you remember fondly with someone who’s just discovering its pleasures? Afterward, I spied my own copy snoozing on a shelf and was inspired to pull it down and ramble through it.
Ah, now, here, I thought to myself, is a fellow who knows all about writing dangerously! Every page sparkles with fresh ideas, rising as warm and hot from our boy Henry’s mind as bread baking in an oven. How simply and directly he engages us: drawing us instantly into the world he’s escaped to, cheerfully assaulting our conformity, and wrestling with his own confusion and limitations right on the page, nakedly and without shame or apology. Fantastic!
How did he do it? How did he bring us along with him, almost letting us peek into his fertile brain and see his ideas aborning, his thoughts in mid-flight? I think the key is his own sense of curiosity and wonder about what he’s discovering about himself, the world he’s retreated to, and the world he’s left behind. He ponders, but he’s rarely ponderous.
Walden is widely viewed now as a masterpiece. But only 2,000 copies were printed in Henry’s lifetime and it brought him neither fame nor fortune. He died in 1862 at the age of 44, knowing that he was considered a failure in literary circles. Today, readers from India to West Africa revere the wisdom he shares. Consider this gem: “Our life is frittered away by detail….Simplify, simplify.”