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Book Review: “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

WaldenWalden by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Minimalist before the Japanese made it cool.

In short, this is the OG minimalism bible. It is also a call to arms, compelling the reader to slow down their wasteful pursuits of material gain and live a fuller life. It is the Carpe Diem Minimalist Bible.

I was fortunate to know, to a degree, what to expect going into this book. If you’re expecting a penetrative and provocative page-turner of a read, then I’d advise you to pass this one by. You really need to be in the right place to appreciate it. Gratefully the stars aligned and, for the space I was in at the time, I found it superb. Before going any further, here’s what to expect:

Expect:
– The first chapter (the longest) to be a total drag, consisting of 50+ pages of 19th-century bank statements detailing (to the penny) the costs of rice, flour and rental prices in rural Massachusetts
– 30-odd pages detailing the subtlest of changes in the appearance and depth of pond ice over a 4-to-5-month period
– Endless moaning about the way other people choose to live their lives
– To often feel like giving up on it, prompting a strong desire to check the weather forecast where you are and compare the weather over a 12-day period to various regions of southern Europe
– To look up from the book on your commute to work and observe in frustration that 21st-century modern man lives precisely the opposite lifestyle to Thoreau

Also, let it be known that Thoreau actually frequently went home and got his mum to do his laundry (but hey, who would turn down free laundry?) He also only lived a half-hour walk from town – not the most secluded lifestyle.

But none of this really matters. Here’s what I love about Walden:

OK, he doesn’t sleep in a cave, living off locusts and honey, but it’s what his defiance represents. While all his contemporaries work hard all day to buy luxuries they can scarcely afford, Thoreau works the land a couple hours a day ’til he’s got enough to get by, then spends the rest of his time roaming the woods and befriending the forest creatures, or in deep meditation, or absorbed in meaningful conversation, or communing with Lao Tzu and Plato, or…you get the idea. Basically, anything but checking Whatsapp.

Walden forced me to reframe my understanding of work. Work exists to serve man, not the other way round. But in a consumerist society, we learn to live for our work, and can end up working more and more, to afford more and more luxury. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to work hard, to pursue a successful career; it’s a way to contribute something of value to society, to the benefit of other people. Where would we be without bus drivers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and all the rest of them?

Walden merely warns us to remember the real luxuries and freedoms in life: the freedom to listen to the sound of the wind rushing through the trees. Or to notice the subtle changes in the opacity of the ice on the pond near your house over the winter months. Or the freedom to watch the clouds gently roll by on a summer afternoon.

Such freedom to breathe comes when we clear out the dusty old suitcases and forgotten furniture of our mind. It’s the freedom of inner space. That’s real minimalism.

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