Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 4 (the conclusion)

And so we say goodbye to Thoreau and Walden. It was a difficult journey, a reading experience like I've rarely had in my life. It was a book which, largely, I disliked, but then at other parts loved.

In a way, I disliked what the book did to me, which was to hold up a few ugly mirrors (along with apparently driving away the rest of the Reading the Classics Reading Group participants. Did anyone else besides my mom make it all the way through this one?) I found myself ranting often about a work of classic literature. Normally I strive to be a champion for the cause of more people reading "the classics" (whatever they may be.)
I think I had a sort of Naked Lunch moment last night when Laurie and I had this conversation before I went to bed. I was reading a rather garishly covered glossy graphic novel.

Laurie: "What are you reading?"
Me: "Camelot 3000. It's a comic book from the 1980s about King Arthur fighting aliens. It's kind of a living document to why Alan Moore had to happen."
L: "Well, I guess after Walden..."
Me: "After Walden, I feel like I've earned it."
L: "You've earned the right to read some crap."
Me: "Hey, look, Walden would have been a lot better if Thoreau had been fighting aliens through it."
L: "Hm. Seems to me someone else did that with another book and zombies."
Me: "... Egad! What have I become?!!?"

Part of the problem for me this week was that I loved this week's section almost without a single qualm. There were a few off-putting phrases, but for the most part it was really lovely nature writing and a conclusion which I actually liked. Which left me feeling a little cheated as well. Here I had built a huge case of disliking the book for the first 160 pages and the last 60 really aren't that bad taken on their own. Really, in my opinion, if Thoreau had not been so consumed and focused early on with pointing out the flaws of people who were not like him, he could have pulled off a beautiful book.

We start this week with a section on firewood. He talks about the universal value of wood, which is even more dear today than in Thoreau's day. There's a lovely description of ice bubbles in the pond. Largely this week's reading was about the pond from Winter into Spring with a conclusion. I would have most likely loved this book without reservation if the book has been only the section we read this week.

The Former Inhabitants section describes a dramatic and failed effort to save a farmhouse from a fire. There's a visit from a poet. There's a description of watching an owl. A lovely bit about staying in the courtyard in the evening in case a guest should show up, whether they do or not. Descriptions of birds landing on the wood he's carrying to the cabin in his arms. Fathoming and sounding the depth of the pond. The men coming to take ice from the pond to ship it to points southward (the neat bit about people in New Orleans, et al, drinking at his well) and the greenness of the ice described so vividly. And then the new growth of spring, the loud cracking of the ice, the silly squirrels. This is what I wanted this whole book to be. I found all of this really compelling, charming and meditative. Although I have to add that all of the previous sections had tainted all of these positive feelings this week.

The only weird bit I have marked from this week's reading is this quote "In our bodies, a bold projecting brow falls off to and indicates a corresponding depth of thought." To which I wrote "phrenology?" Be careful, little children, what you believe.

The conclusion is the section of the book I think I underlined most heavily without a single outraged comment in the margin. He deals (albeit briefly) with how not everyone can go run off and have a "top of the mountain" experience which, as you'll recall, was one of my main objections to the first fourth of the book. He ends with such a hopeful note. "There is more day to dawn."

So, I think my own conclusion about Walden is this: I agree that it's a classic and would recommend it to people with one stipulation and it is a very serious and earnest stipulation. I would say to anyone, "If you want to read Walden, go, get a copy, and immediately tear out the first 150 pages." This is not a suggestion of censorship, it's simply what I think an intelligent editor would have done in the first place. Or, to put a finer point on it, had I been Thoreau's editor, I would have cut out so much of the Thoreau and tried to leave Walden intact.

Anyway, our next book in the series is The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It is a wonderful book which we will do in one go. That means if you want to read along, get a copy. At the end of next week I shall (Deo volente) post a reminder to start reading. The following Friday, two weeks from today, we will post our thoughts on The Metamorphosis.


  1. ~20 pages to go. I'm determined. I didn't finish part the third until Tues. night, I think, hence why no comments on it yet.


  2. My comments are at
    I hope it did that right.

  3. I have some comments. However, I'm trying to distance myself from Walden before making them. I've already made it though a Jeffrey Deaver crime thriller (2 night read) and am on the 3rd night of Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide. I hope to post comments before I finish Survival Guide, which should be sometime this weekend. My mind feels much better having eaten this literary ice cream, after it suffered through the Brussel's Sprouts of Walden.

  4. And here they are! Cross-posted, of course.

    I waited on writing this, trying to count to 10 before being overly harsh. I don't know that it worked, even though I've finished 2, maybe almost three books since reading the last page of Walden.

    I can't for the life of me imagine how any high school teacher could expect a student to make it through the first section of this book, much less finish it, before reaching out to cliff notes or the internet for summaries. If those same students find this summary, feel free to excerpt it at your leisure, and pick any phrase in the book as an example quote. Then take your copy of the book, and put it on your bookshelf. Don't bother taking it off the bookshelf until you move out of your house. Then put it deep in a box, and don't take it out again until you have another bookshelf you want to fill.

    Now, Paul thinks its a lovely bit of nature writing. I beg to differ, although I can't say that I could tell a good bit of nature writing from a bad bit, but I certainly enjoy the scenic descriptions of Twain and Steinbeck (and probably anyone else) more than the ramblings of this author. Perhaps I haven't read enough nature writing to experience the true lowest of the low.

    I really tried to hold out hope that our author might find the true beauty of working the land, like Voltaire emphasized. No, this never happens. It almost does a couple times, but the bitterness of the true narcissist comes back and tromps all over what could be an actual transformation.

    In this book, Thoreau pretty much takes aim at anyone that is not Thoreau, and sets his mind and pen on offending them. I'm not easily offended, and I have a lot of patience, but a modern meeting with this character would result in me not coming back to any optional second meeting, and perhaps a boot to the arse of this piece of arrogant hipster trash. Yes, I think in his time, Thoreau may have been a hipster. In some ways he reminds me of Salinger's Zooey.

    I'm glad I can claim to have read it, but I think it rates up there with Joyce's Ulysses as a book that is supposedly impossible to read. I haven't read Joyce, and don't intend to start right away.

    I'm very glad to move on to other books in the Penguin list, and am sure the rest of us are as well.