Sometimes I think English professors and literary snobs speak so highly of certain books for the same reason teenage girls will wear only one brand of clothing: it’s just the fashion.
Herman Melville, for example, is vastly overrated, with painfully verbose, long-winded and boring works like Bartleby the Scrivener.
I suspect the same could be said about other classics like War and Peace, though I haven’t read it. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke.
Henry David Thoreau is not quick reading either, at least not for me.
The ideas he presents — and more so, the way he presents them — require considerable attention and patience to digest. And I’ve only got half that equation, often lacking in attention span.
But I’ve now read his essay Civil Disobedience, and I’m making a concerted effort to get through Walden. This latter work in particular is important in a way that the works of Melville and many others could never be.
It’s not only an exhaustive account of the roughly two years he spent living in the woods in a cabin he built with his own hands. Written at the crossroads of autobiography, classic literature, and political treatise, it’s a manifesto on living simply.
Thoreau was a brilliant man and student of many philosophies, including Eastern faiths like Hinduism, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one can compare the life he writes of and that of, say, the Buddha.
It is a life in which the work one performs is its own reward, and each part of one’s life, no matter how “small,” deserves complete attention.
Or to paraphrase the Buddha (I can’t seem to find the exact quote): “When we’re eating, we’re only eating. When we’re walking, we’re only walking. When we’re resting, we’re only resting.”
Thoreau’s way often shuns the advancements of technology. In fact, Thoreau wrote that a man could be perfectly happy living in a crate.
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.”
As I read this, I felt a stirring in myself to sell off everything I owned and live like a monk.
Thoreau seduced me with the reminder that owning something requires taking the time, energy and worry to maintain it, and that makes one poorer by comparison. I didn’t want something to sap my energy, by golly!
That passed quickly, though, when I decided I like having a bed, pillows, running water, proper sanitation, my electric piano, and this computer, among other luxuries. After all, it is nearly impossible in the modern world to live by one’s wits alone, whereas it was doable in Thoreau’s day.
A case in point: the other day, the kitchen sink backed up. And so, after each meal for a day or more, I hauled my dishes from the kitchen to the bathroom and washed them in a sink that was half the size required.
It was, compared to many modern problems, a minor inconvenience. Yet it made me appreciate the “luxury” of a large kitchen sink.
Even if we don’t want to live like ascetics in the forest, there’s something to be said for simplifying our lives and removing anything we don’t absolutely need or want. We collect so much that we never rid ourselves of, and it only weighs us down.
Everything I own, aside from my car, can easily fit into a single bedroom — perhaps even a large closet. But will this remain true when I’m no longer single and twenty-something? That remains to be seen.
Perhaps most importantly, Walden has illuminated for me what we have gotten wrong about technology. It has not developed for us to avoid labor and instead put our efforts towards “better” pursuits. That’s the common view, but it’s not quite correct.
In fact, I believe we will be much happier if we grow and prepare our own food as much as possible, as well as to wash our dishes by hand, do our own cleaning and so on.
Rather, technology has been developed for us to choose these seemingly menial, meaningless tasks, rather than be forced to do them. And to choose which of these tasks we wish to do that grounds us and keeps us humble. After all, one need not do everything by hand.
It will suffice for the spiritual purpose to choose a few of these tasks to perform, while delegating the rest to others or to machines.
But I think a man (or woman) who wants to be happy will, in fact, choose to do as much for himself as he can. With technology, he will not be doing it out of survival instinct anymore, but because he sees it for the ancient wisdom that it is.
He sees for all that technology has advanced, it will never improve upon the simplest of lives, like the one lived not so long ago by Thoreau on Walden Pond.
Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, healing, and grounded spirituality in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column. You can find him on his website, www.wordswithmatthew.com.