Monday, June 2, 2008

Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

I didn't read Thoreau in high school or college, and I'm thankful for that. When I did first pick up Walden, I was living in Oregon and working as a wilderness guide. My occupation and earlier reading--specifically Jack London and Peter Matthiessen--enabled me to better appreciate his work at that time.

Many students are given "great" books to study and end up resenting the authors and even reading itself. I wouldn't doubt if millions of Americans today don't read because of their tedious childhood experience with The Grapes of Wrath or The Scarlet Letter. Both books are excellent, but their multi-layered social critique has a more receptive listener in someone not experiencing puberty. This idea that the reader must be ready to read a book properly is shared by Thoreau and is examined in detail in Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, by David Richardson.

My enjoyment of Thoreau comes from reading a beautifully written affirmation of my principles and a coherent wording for many of my jumbled ideas; it is both inspiring and illuminating. The only other writing that has resonated so strongly with my beliefs, in this instance political, is Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

This book does an excellent job of tracing the development of Thoreau's thinking. The major themes of political activism and philosophy in nature are covered in detail. Also revealed to the reader is the depth of his interest in other topics such as ecology, mythology, and the American Indians.

What is missing is an adequate exploration of the world around Thoreau. The author chose to focus exclusively on intellectual matters and the result is more an essay than a telling of a man's life. The meat and potatoes of the story remain in the dark. His friends and family, the United States during the early 1800's, even the town of Concord that he is so associated with, none of these vital elements of context take form in these pages.

This book was an enjoyable and informative read, but I can't shake the feeling that it is a second-best substitute for reading Thoreau himself; you won't learn much about his life and the best parts are quotes from his works.

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