Book Review – Walden

800px-walden_thoreau3.5 stars. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recounts his time living on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. For two years, he lived in a small cottage, eschewing society and excess for simple fulfillment of the necessities of life.

The first chapter, “Economy”, outlines what he saw as the bare essentials for his life, and how he met those needs by living off the land. I found this chapter to be the most meaningful, especially how his life was richer, and he was happier, for living sparsely. Later chapters evaluate what humans should aspire to be, namely living a clean, disciplined life. He stresses the need for ongoing evaluation of one’s moral standards as the tool for progress as a society. I was also struck by his emphasis on living deliberately–consciously deciding one’s actions, as well as being present in the moment (what you kids these days would term “mindfulness”)–and its role in self-determination and happiness.

I’ll let some quotes from Thoreau speak for themselves:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…

A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

While I enjoyed and appreciated Thoreau the philosopher and Thoreau the naturalist, I’m not particularly sure I care for Thoreau the person or Thoreau the writer. There’s a certain snobbery to his ersatz self-reliance; he conveys the idea that his idyllic condition is the natural state of mankind, and to deviate from his philosophy is to deviate from this One True Path. And while he makes a great deal of his situation, the reality is that he lived on a friend’s property that was a 40 minute walk from Concord, sheltered from extra cold nights at the Emerson’s house, and took his laundry home to his mom–hardly the life of a rugged individualist solely responsible for his own survival!

I’m certainly aware that I’m judging 150 year old writing standards, but Thoreau seems to prefer unnecessarily complex sentence structures and long, rambling passages:

In the meanwhile all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake—if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there—who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.

(And that’s just a sentence I picked at random.) It’s fairly easy to zone out on page after page of raising beans or measuring the depth of Walden Pond anyway, and when combined with convoluted prose, it gets pretty darn near unreadable.

If Thoreau would only have applied his philosophy of economy to words–most of the passages I wound up highlighting were sparsely worded and the richer for it:

Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.

The nature lover in me enjoyed his lush descriptions of Walden Pond. He definitely has an eye not only for the details of nature but for the responses and feelings that nature imparted to him. The chapter “Sounds” particularly struck me as an excellent example of naturalist writing as he describes the noises both natural and man-made that punctuated his days.

I regret that I did not visit Walden Pond on either of my recent trips to the Boston area (a business trip in 2015 and a vacation in 2016), and I will remedy that exclusion the next time my travels take me to New England.

Walden deserves its place of importance in the canon of literature. I feel wholesomely enriched by reading it. Even though the writing was not always to my taste, I am appreciative of Thoreau’s work and philosophy. While I may not read it in its entirety again, I’m sure I will revisit parts–perhaps even those I didn’t care for the first time–and continue to evaluate my own principles against those set forth here.

Book Review – Watership Down

766205 stars. Richard Adams’ recent death motivated me to revisit his beloved classic and a childhood favorite of mine, Watership Down. The tale of a group of rabbits and their quest for survival proceeds in classical epic fashion (on a rabbit scale at least!) for a cracking good read with appeal to all ages.

After Fiver, a young rabbit with the gift of premonition, foretells the doom of their warren, a group of young rabbits depart to find a new home. Their adventures lead them through dangers both apparent and hidden that forge them into a tight-knit group as they seek a place to create a new warren. The tasks necessary for the long-term survival of the new warren will take every bit of their cunning, ingenuity, and bravery.

Watership Down excels in every aspect of storytelling. The plot itself is riveting; even when I know what is coming, it is suspenseful and hard to put down. The style of writing–epic in miniature–is perfect for a tale that appeals to young audiences and gives richness to older readers. The world and life of the rabbits is deep and detailed; Adams creates a believable culture, mythology, and identity for his heroes. (The stories of rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah on their own make for rollicking reads.) The prose itself is straightforward and easy to read, with lovely descriptions of the English countryside.

The book really shines when it comes to the characters: Hazel, the quiet and effective leader. Bigwig, the brave and strong champion of the group. Strawberry, who joins their journeys when he can no longer stand living under duplicity. Campion, the dangerous, competent, and still admirable captain of the enemy. Hyzenthlay, the resourceful doe who wishes for the freedom of promised by the group. General Woundwort, the frightening and almost mythic adversary.

While the author denies any allegories, it’s easy to see how many leaders and historical conflicts could be found by the story. Perhaps that’s the strength of classical archetypes and themes–they resonate because they are fundamental to human nature.

On a personal level, I always appreciate books where intelligence and cleverness are the crux of the story rather than force and strength. The rabbits follow Hazel because his wits and vision lead them superbly. The climax of the story reads like an ingenious prison break, where the hints that Adams gives readers all come to fruition.

Watership Down is a book that has been a delight to read since childhood. Thank you, Mr. Adams, for your lovely tale of home, friendship, leadership, and adventure.

Book Review – Brighty of the Grand Canyon

4 stars. This childhood favorite of mine holds up well, capturing a palpable sense of excitement and danger, as well as the incredible locale of the Grand Canyon. Marguerite Henry anthropomorphizes Brighty well, making him a believable and lovable animal character. The cameo appearances by Teddy Roosevelt tied the story well to history. Human characters still feel human–strong, weak, good, rotten. One aspect that I found interesting is that reading this book as an adult is that Brighty’s world feels richer to me thanks to three weeklong backpacking trips I’ve spent below the rim of the Canyon. I was very glad that I reread this book.

Book Review – The Great Gatsby

4 stars. My reading goal for 2015 is to read one “classic” a month. The Great Gatsby was an excellent way to kick off my classics reading, characterized by its lush prose and theme of the “American Dream” pushed to the point of total excess. I loved the richness of the writing. Fitzgerald’s phrasing is excellent, and I found many passages that used the perfect words to convey his meanings. I also appreciated that he was able to use such full language without being flowery or wordy. He uses his language to devastating effect in satirizing the society redolent in excess of the Jazz Age.

Ultimately, the reason that I did not love the book is simple: Daisy, as we see her in the book, is not a girl worthy of Gatsby’s quixotic love. Jay Gatsby is, ethically speaking, the best character in the book because he achieved success not for love of wealth, but for love of Daisy, and she in turn chose stability and comfort–and the man who wants her as a prize more than as a person–over this love.