Book Notes: Walden by Thoreau

To continue my transcendentalist kick (here are my notes on Emerson), I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It was enjoyable.

I recently shed the spiritual but not religious label, but I’m still intrigued by the idea of spirituality, in particular those kinetic experiences in nature for which “spiritual,” despite its ambiguity, seems the most apt description.

Thoreau is all about nature, and would well approve, I think, of the post-college rite of wandering the earth in search of its earthly wisdom. Walden has some eloquent sentences and provocative nuggets. Its themes are nature, simple living, contemplation, and solitude. I skipped many sections, such as his meticulous documenting of cabin life, but I would still recommend it on the whole.

My favorite sentences / nuggets, direct quotes, are below:

  • I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.
  • It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.
  • But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
  • Confucius said, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
  • In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
  • for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
  • The Harivansa says, “An abode without birds is like a meat without seasoning.”
  • What should we think of the shepherd’s life if his flocks always wandered to higher pastures than his thoughts?
  • The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
  • I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
  • Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
  • I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.
  • I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.
  • It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.
  • Confucius says truly, “Virtue does not remain as an abandoned orphan; it must of necessity have neighbors.”
  • I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
  • We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.
  • They had nothing to eat themselves, and they were wiser than to think that apologies could supply the place of food to their guests; so they drew their belts tighter and said nothing about it.
6 comments on “Book Notes: Walden by Thoreau
  • “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” -HDT

    How could you leave this out? Few books have had a larger impact on me than Walden. It is a true classic.

  • Ben,

    You might find the movie “The Secret” of interest. It outlines both the Law of Attraction and the New Thought Movement (which has a history with American Transcendentalists.)

    The essence of the idea is that people are energy force fields made up of the same stuff as the universe. So if you apply your force field you can turn thoughts into reality. So, you ask for what you want, visualize it deeply, and act as if you already have it. Over time, you’ll attract your desires to you–be it happiness, fulfillment, money, a big house, fancy car, wonderful spouse, etc.

    I warn you now, it’s a bit “new aging.” But I found it to be a helpful reminder of the power of positive thinking.

  • Please don’t drag The Secret into this, Elliott– it’s pablum fit only for feeble intellects.

    The very suggestion that such thin insipid gruel, such commercial lobotomized crap as The Secret has any kinship with Thoreau’s spirit is a slap in the face to healthy scientific skepticism and a decent respect for the human intellect.

    You’re right about one thing, though, Elliot– it is very “aging”. I felt like I was a hundred years old when I read that same old self-actualizing bullshit for the millionth time.

  • Ha! I think Thoreau would so quickly disapprove of wandering the Earth. He was very content with Concord and didn’t have much reason to go further. Great first choice of quotes to disprove this though, but realize how little of the earth Thoreau knew by experience. Yet, he knew it well and I think that’s exactly why I love his writing.

    You should definitely keep reading some Thoreau. Civil Disobedience is excellent and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is another classic.

    Since you’ve mentioned Tim Ferris in the past, I should mention Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. Tim recommended this book and I definitely approve.

  • thoreau had a great need for wisdom and a natural enlightenment, his thirst for self educating himself was endless, if available to him then as today he would have embraced the cultures,people,and their environments with an open mind and arms, i know this from the tribes i have acquainted myself with and have wished thoreau could be there to feel their beauty. michael jameson [email protected]

Leave a Reply to Colin Marshall Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *