Henry David Thoreau: author, poet, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, philosopher, transcendentalist. For a man that was so many things in addition to a prolific writer, it is hardly surprising that a survey of his works should produce such a substantial and wide-ranging collection of observations on the human condition. Although most famous for his book Walden and his essay Civil Disobedience, his list of more than two dozen works spans over two decades, from the 1840s to the 1860s, and ranges from topics such as the history of the apple tree to the life and death of abolitionist John Brown.
Some of Thoreau’s quotes are so famous, most of us have heard them, whether we know they flowed from his pen or not. “That government is best which governs least,” although often attributed elsewhere, was first found in Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, and despite the century and a half separating us from its publication, is just as topical and debated today as it was then. Many of the aphorisms, beautifully illustrated in black-and-white ink drawings, seem startlingly modern in their content; indeed, some of them could be mistaken for lyrics from a late 1960s rock band. They have the same mystical, poetic purity of form combined with the social rebellion that characterizes some of classic rock’s greatest moments.
“How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world – how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
There are some moments of unintended hilarity, as well, interspersed among more profound thoughts on life, love, and nature. “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait ’til the other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.” Well. Alrighty then.
Thoreau’s ideas did not meet with universal acclaim. He had his critics; Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fame, thought he was girly and self-indulgent. Nathanial Hawthorn, author of The Scarlet Letter, basically called Thoreau a bum who shirked any practical means of earning a living. Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, although less critical of Thoreau intellectually, thought his beard was so skanky it would scare away any potential girlfriends. So, if you find you can’t agree with quite all the deep thoughts collected in this volume, you are in eminent company – and so am I, because there is one quote in Thumbing Through Thoreau that neither I nor any reader of this blog is likely to agree with. Like my husband, Thoreau doesn’t seem to think much of our favorite pastime:
“…and for the rest of their lives vegitate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.”
I guess I’m all for dissipation! Someone hand me a glass of wine while I lay like broccoli, the latest novel in my hand…
All joking aside, this is a lovely, thought-provoking, and comprehensive collection of the thoughts of one of the greatest American authors and philosophers of the 19th century. Thoreau was a man who influenced the likes of Ghandi, JFK, Martin Luther King, Yeats, Hemingway, and Frank Lloyd Wright. This book is a gentle and pleasing introduction to an intellectual giant, and perfectly portioned to be dipped into whenever you need a little intellectual ballast to save your brain from liquefying under the influence of popular culture.