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Book Review: "Walden", by Henry David Thoreau

I didn’t know we had quarreled.

Henry David Thoreau, asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God

Not everybody goes into the woods, builds a small hut, and lives there for two years – so we can safely say that Henry David Thoreau was a special person. “Walden”, a product of that time, is a special perspective into Thoreau’s mind. “Walden” details very much how Thoreau saw his world, and guides us in how we should see ours.

You can immediately tell that Thoreau lived in a different time. It’s not just that he spells Hindus “Hindoos” and Eskimos (Inuit) “Esquimaux”, but the weaving of an enlightened prose that, despite its verbosity, drives deeply into your thoughts. It was also a time where you could build a shed for less than one hundred U.S. dollars, when proprietors cut blocks of ice out of Walden to sell at market for refrigeration, and you could directly drink out of wells and lakes without worrying too much about chemicals, microplastics, and general human taint. A simpler time, if you will.

Thoreau may agree, as during his time in Walden, he more or less lightly dances to the tranquility bestowed upon his senses. The sense of wonder and joy he witnesses in his woods is evident in every adjective and verb in “Walden”. If you read Harry Potter, you could say Thoreau treated Nature as his Pensieve; if it was not his Heaven, it was a window into it.

One unexpected inclusion in my copy of “Walden” was Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. It was such a jolting thematic change that I googled it to see why he had included it. He didn’t; it was included by the publisher (without warning), and written after he had been jailed after coming back from Walden for not paying his poll taxes (a tax for literally existing). This essay, a fiery rebuke by Thoreau on the society he tried to escape for a time, highlights and cements a lot of the lessons we learn from him during his time on the pond. Thoreau hammers home not just the importance of self-reliance, but its inherent virtue; not just the separation between the state and the individual, but the right to be forgotten. The contrast between Thoreau’s admiration of nature and his disgust of society is not something I expected to see – yet it provides a key piece of his life I did not expect to find. What are we if we remove our dependency on society and on societial constructs? Thoreau gives us the timeless answer - we are always what we choose to be.