Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Layers of Walden

My book group is about to finish our time with Walden. My book group is organized differently than most; because we have the luxury of most of us living together, we can meet more often. With Walden, we met about once every two weeks or so, sometimes meeting once a week and sometimes having the distance between meetings stretched by circumstance. This means that we read shorter segments of the book for each meeting, allowing us to read much closer than we would have if we'd tried to digest the entire book in one or two meetings. Not every book can sustain such rigorous reading. Walden thrives on it.

Most of us first read Walden as nature writing for a number of reasons (one being that when you've got to burn through a work to get your essay assignment done on time you are forced to focus on easily identifiable aspects of a work,) and though that's not really incorrect, it limits the scope and impact of Walden. As I write this post, I want to say "Walden is not nature writing, Walden is..." but I don't have a good description of what Walden is. It's philosophy and economics and literature and nature and a something else that combines all of those elements into a multi-layer whole that gets more complicated and nuanced with the more attention you pay to it. He writes in the world of non-fiction but uses images as if he were writing a novel. Walden has motifs along with ideas. Porter Square Books shelves it in our nature section and I would disagree if I could come up with an accurate section. I'll close this post with a few quotes from Walden, that I think illustrate the points I'm making.

"When man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their lives on that basis."

"It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure--if they are indeed so well off--to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives."

"It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such."

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