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.