As our winter break draws near, many of us are probably thinking about the ample free time to finally read for pleasure. The question of what books to read will undoubtedly come up, and for that I have a solution. Take a few days to return to one of those Great American Classics and think critically as you follow Henry David Thoreau on his two-year excursion to Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts.
If you had to read Walden for an idealism or nature course in high school, now is a good opportunity to reread without the burden of reverence that often comes with Thoreau. Instead, read with an air of cynicism, for while Walden has some great philosophical ideas about humans and technology and government, Thoreau was a satirist at heart. Allow yourself to be amused at his overall belief in his own superiority.
His observations range from bragging about how much money he saved building his cabin by hand to stating that Concord, home to not only himself but also to Emerson, the Alcotts, Hawthorne and more, had “no taste for the best or for very good books.” This declaration could ruffle the feathers of those not familiar with Thoreau’s tendency toward bluntness.
Regarding trashy books, in fact, Thoreau goes so far as to say that they cause “a dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.” Conversely, he says that “the works of great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them.” Between his feelings about trashy books and great poetry, one wonders what Thoreau actually did like to read. You’ll find gems like this in and around his high philosophy.
So, Connecticut College students, I recommend leaving behind your “lives of quiet desperation” this winter break and following Thoreau’s adventure at Walden Pond. His “enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks” –– whose aren’t? You may find that you have more in common with him than you thought you did. •