Fridays at The Variegated Life: on what I’ve read or am reading …
A while ago, I decided (not entirely seriously) that the only goal I have for 2012 is to read Walden. The truth is, I was a little afraid of Walden — of Thoreau’s seriousness, of his actually living in accord with his heart and conscience. Thoreau, I imagined, would take one look at our apartment or my schedule and turn away in disgust.
And then, just as I was about to head out the door to pick up the Critter from school one day last week, I realized there was nothing in my bag to read on the subway. What to read, what to read, what to read? And so, after some hesitation, I grabbed Walden. Why not start it now? How bad could it be?
As it turns out, not bad at all. I had imagined Thoreau as a harsh critic of the masses; what I find instead is great empathy:
I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars—even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.
The harsh critic I had imagined Thoreau to be isn’t him at all — it’s actually my high school self. The one who read a few pages of Walden but never actually finished it. The one who read the sentence, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and thought that it was a criticism of the masses. The one who did not hear Thoreau’s plea to them that it need not be so: “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”
P.S., You can find me here on Goodreads.