Walden by Henry David Thoreau recounts two years, two months and two days that the author spent in the woods near the pond after which the book was named. Starting on July 4th, 1845, Thoreau set out to the woods, leaving behind a newspaper job, a house and a community in search of some truth, an insight into himself and the nature of the person inspired by self-imposed exile. He, of course, didn’t cut off human contact. No, far from it. He welcomed guests to his hand-made shelter, made trips to town to sell produce and make social calls and befriended others living out in the countryside, like a charismatic French-Canadian woodsman who goes unnamed. Walden was a high water mark for the American Memoir, but only insomuch as it was one of the first. In truth, Thoreau is a pedantic, judgmental and narcissistic author, the kind of person who would later become the modern hipster. Needless to say I did not care for the book, though I read it anyway. Or did I? Walden was one of the first audiobooks I’ve…engaged with…in a long time, and as I sat to write this review, it occurred to me, can I truely say that I’ve read the book?
The truth is I’m not really sure what this book is about. It seems to be just a slew of judgments of others, specifics about farming or somesuch nonsense and quotes from classic literature as if it were scripture that really has no bearing on any kind of modern audience. Walden goes back and forth between long lists and even longer diatribes. And did Thoreau make lists! There were lists of materials acquired to build his new shelter and at what cost, lists of foodstuffs bought and at what costs, lists of his agricultural produce and at what price he sold his excesses and a list of “honest pilgrims” who happened to pass by his rural abode (referring to them as “simple” and sometime even “halfwits”) among oh so many others. There were so many lists that I just realized that I made a list of his lists. Share your benign lists with me, shame on you. Have me make a list about your lists, shame on me. I found his ranting and insistent lists of what he planted, where, in what capacity and how much it sold it for to be about as interesting as the old women who gather outside my school at which I teach, selling fruits and vegetables every afternoon and talking about how apples just don’t sell like they used to.
Thoreau is an obnoxious narrator and I found his not-so-humble observations to be irritating, closed minded and bound not by religion, but by the classic humanities. It seems odd, considering the time at which it was written, but Thoreau did not come across as a religious man. Instead, he based his patchwork of ethics on literary works of antiquity, works I’ve never heard of. I don’t mean to make it sound as if these works are irrelevant because I have never heard of them but I do mean to contend that his constant allusions fell on deaf ears. To make matters worse, I don’t think Thoreau would have even cared. He goes on to say that classics should only be read in the same spirit as that in which they were written. Reading a translation is simply unacceptable, as “the modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.” Indeed, he leaves no room for question as to whether one is truly well-read, or read at all, if he cannot read the classics in the tongue in which they were originally written,
Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? […] To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. […] Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written […].
So, basically, if you can’t read The Odyssey in classic Greek, F you. I was into reading classic literature before translations were cool. Hipster much? As if his world-view weren’t exclusive and elitist enough, he subjected his own bibliophilia to those around him; I mean, seriously, he says he wouldn’t even attempt to feed people when they come over to his house, attributing the stance to some obscure classic,
If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it was no interruption […]. But if twenty came and sat in my house there was nothing said about dinner, […] we naturally practised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence against hospitality, but the most proper and considerate course. […] For my own part, I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man’s house, by any kind of Cerberus whatever, as by the parade one made about dining me […]. I should be proud to have for the motto of my cabin those lines of Spenser […], “Arrived there, the little house they fill, Ne looke for entertainment where none was; Rest is their feast, and all things at their will: The noblest mind the best contentment has.”
Fortunately Spencer wrote in English so Thoreau didn’t have to demean Spencer’s ridiculousness by translating them for us, or presumably, for his guests. What a butthole.
For Thoreau’s obtuse expressions of being so broad-minded there’s little room in his world for almost anything else. If not for the monotony of his lists and obscure allusions, his tone and attitude made him unbearable. I had about as much patience with him as I would have with any Portlandian ne’erdowell and the strategy for dealing with both remain the same: just let them talk and they’ll eventually wear themselves out. For better or worse, because this was an audiobook, I literally didn’t have much say in the matter, better left uninterrupted, though I found myself cursing him aloud as confused passersby craned their necks to look at the crazy guy talking to himself while walking around the riverside.
I’ve been a long-time listener of audiobooks, first listening to them while in the Peace Corps. There were days I had a lot of time on my hands all while I had an excruciatingly slow internet connection. Downloading movies was out of the question but audiobooks, they were the only long form entertainment I could feasibly acquire with such a limited connection. But it’s been years since I’ve listened to an audiobook and it wasn’t until I discovered that, with the purchase of Walden on Kindle for 99 cents, I could download the accompanying audiobook for around $4 and use an app on my phone to listen to it. So, I gave listening to an audiobook, namely Walden, another shot.
Audiobooks are really fun. They keep you alert and allow you to engage a book in a completely different context since listening is a secondary focus activity. I enjoyed going for long walks, headphones in my ears, stopping to get a bottle of water, to sit and watch the river, to be free from a chair or the floor and holding something up in front of my face for hours at a time. But my joy of the experience ended there. Man, Thoreau, you’re such a tool.
I was talking to Zach MacDonald about FoA; he asked me what I would be reviewing next and I told him that I was “reading” Walden. And that brought up an interesting point. In an era of mixed media, what verb can we colloquially use to indicate that we have engaged in a text? There are some who claim that you haven’t really read a book if you simply listened to it. And while I can see a point in that–that there are far more distractions to the listener with a secondary focus than to the reader who has made the book a point of primary focus–I contend that people should be less nitpicky about the usage of the word “read” to describe what one does with an audiobook. As mentioned above, I do say that I was listening to an audiobook, but when asked what I was reading for FoA, should I have stopped the conversation and modified my verb to match that of the medium, or continue to use the colloquial verb to communicate that, yes, I was exposing my brain to the very words issued by its author? I would ask, then, if those who listened to Homer tell his epics thousands of years ago had a fundamentally different, unrelatable relationship to the content than those who read the books could have. While reading and listening each offer the reader a fundamentally different experience and relationship with the text, is it fair to say that they have engaged in the same themes, thoughts and theatrics? I think so. The reader and the listener have the same understanding of the story. Therefore, I present to you, the FoA reader, my relationship to an audiobook-as-text. I never thought I would say this, but I think Thoreau would even have my back on this,
The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius written in those languages[…]. What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages a few scholars read […].
Maybe Thoreau would be an Audible.com customer, too. Though, I’m not sure they provide audiobooks in the original Greek or Latin.
I’m glad I read Walden as an audiobook; if not offered the chance to get out, stretch my legs, occupy myself with minor distractions and be out and about, I would certainly have been put to sleep and abandon the book as a primary focus to do something more worthwhile, like making lists upon lists of things I needed to pack for my move back to the U.S. later this month.