Reading Thoreau (Again)

Thoreau Portrait Restored

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (free ebook at The Literature Project), is among the rather small number of books that has become lodged in my consciousness, inescapable and integral, an element of my very being.  The fact that it has been years since I’ve read it all the way through has no effect on this primacy of place.  Nevertheless, the time has come to read it again.  This feels, on the one hand, like deciding to visit an old friend, a boon companion from the past with whom the connection is still strong; but, on the other hand, if this re-encounter is to be genuine, if it is to have real meaning, then I will inevitably be disturbed, provoked.  Walden is above all a provocative book, intended to shake us out of complacency, to force us to question things we are used to taking for granted.  To read it again, really to read it, will mean not just to call up old memories but to stir new thoughts and feelings, to test Thoreau’s conclusions against my own values.  As Thoreau writes, to be a philosopher, as he would ask us all to be, is not just to have “subtle thoughts,” but “so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”  And as Thoreau well knew, these are easier words to write than to live.  So, I have some work ahead of me, but there is also immense pleasure in store as well, since Thoreau’s wit is sharp and his prose both finely crafted and exuberant, among the best ever written in English, or, shall we say American (in the large-spirited rather than narrow sense of that word).

And, in fact, my rereading has already begun, launched last week while we were visiting Cape Cod, the subject of another of Thoreau’s books (his chapter on “The Well-Fleet Oysterman” is a particular favorite of mine).  I didn’t get far before I picked up my journal and began to write:

Sitting here this morning on the deck, under a tree, reading Walden, the white page dappled with sunlight, breezes sighing through the leaves.  My page is dotted with circles of light, and I peer at the words through these circles as they dance in time to the breathy puffs of air fluttering the leaves.  The light comes through the shifting gaps between the leaves above me, but why the regularity of circles, these swaying and bobbing bubbles of light?  This must be some trick of vision, some preference of eye and brain.  If the breeze blows hard enough the circles burst and the familiar shadowed contours of oak leaves flutter and twist on the page until the heavens calm and the bubbles alight once more.  Some of these bubbles form not circles but ovals and some flash on and off or leap from one spot to another.  Some clump and cluster to make flowers of light drifting left and right, up and down.  Some go fluid, watery, and some overlap into grayish opacities that seem to pulse, so that I have the sense of new life forming, taking shape under some vast microscope.  Through the lens of which I would appear how?

Sometimes we turn to books for a sort of escape, a retreat into fantasy and adventure, and that can be great fun, but some books attune us more sharply to the world, to the present moment, which has a way of expanding almost infinitely when we give it the right sort of attention.  As Thoreau writes, he strove during his time at Walden pond “to stand at the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

Walden Frontispiece

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