Every week I’ll be sharing what I read with you & please share with me what you are reading to inspire ✨each other and break out of our filter bubbles. What I’m reading 📖 this week: WALDEN // Want to know more? Read on!
POSTER BOY FOR MINIMALISM
I’ve read a couple of books during my summer break which I will share with you in the coming weeks. Starting with the American classic ‘Walden’ written in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau.
If Thoreau would have lived in our time, he surely would have been the poster boy for ‘minimalistic Millennials’. In Walden he not only describes why and how he retreated for 2 years to live in a simple cabin in the woods. He also shares his thoughts on work-life balance, the burden of ownership, going back to basic and the power of nature.
Let’s take a closer look at what he describes in Walden.
INTRO ON THOREAU's PHILOSOPHY
Thoreau doesn’t provide a soft landing into his book, he immediately gets to it with one of the most famous phrases in Walden:
'The mass of man lead lives of quiet desperation.’
In his view the labouring man ‘has no time to be anything but a machine’. They are ‘serfs of the soil’ and they ‘begin digging their graves as soon as they are born’. That does not seem a very optimistic view of human life, to put it mildly. ;)
But luckily Thoreau feels that we can change the way we live to make it less of a burden. He sees people around him ‘denying the possibility of change, -this is the only way-, we say. But there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre’.
As a trend researcher I ofcourse love hearing that someone is open to change. Being able to see alternatives is one of the key characteristics of frontrunners and changemakers.
Thoreau observes the people living in his village named Concord and concludes that, as humans, we have the following necessities in live: food, shelter, clothing and fuel. He then starts to explain that the way we view these necessities defines if they control us, or we control them.
For example, if you want to live in a big house, you need to pay for it and you need to work to get the money to pay for it. Then you need to sustain the house, which also costs money, which means more labour. The same goes for food, clothing and fuel.
Or as Thoreau puts it:
'The cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it’.
So, if you buy something you exchange a part of your life for it. Now think again if you really want to trade a piece of your life for that new shirt…
Leading by EXAMPLE
After dissecting what he feels is wrong in his day and age about how people lead their lives, Thoreau starts to provide solutions to be more in control of your life. He does not give you abstract theories. He leads by example and retreated to the woods near his village for 2 years, building his own cabin (aka tiny house), growing his own crops, gathering his own fuel and having a very limited wardrobe.
‘My greatest skill has been to want but little.’
Thoreau values his freedom and also has something to say related to today’s freelancers and the gig-economy:
‘For myself I found that the occupation of the day labourer was the most independent of any, especially as it required only thirty or fourty days a year to support one.’
Eat your heart out Timothy Ferriss, with your 4-hour workweek! He then goes on to compare the freedom of the day labourer to the employer:
‘The labourer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labour; but his employer, who speculates from month to month has no respite from one end of the year to another.’
Thoreau feels that maintaining yourself on this earth should not be a hardship but rather feel like a pastime. According to him this can be achieves by living simply and wisely.
After this introduction, yes people this was just the introduction of the book, Thoreau dives into the various aspects of living simply in his cabin with chapters titles like: Solitude, Sounds, Visitors, The Bean Field and Winter Animals.
I won’t summarise all the chapters, if Thoreau’s thoughts resonate with you, better read Walden yourself. One warning though: it has been written in 1854 so the grammar and words can be a bit difficult to grasp in one go. I often had to read some sections twice to understand what they meant (but I’m not a native English speaker anyway).
TOP 10 TRENDY QUOTES BY THOREAU
I will leave you with some of Thoreau’s expressions I feel are relevant and even trending today:
Although Thoreau thinks humans should be open to change, he himself has some critical thoughts on innovations:
‘There is an illusion on ‘modern improvements'; there is not always a positive advance. Our inventions are pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.’
‘Men think it is essential that the nation has commerce, export ice and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour. Why should we live with such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.’
And to top it off, he leaves us with this thought to ponder about:
‘While civilisation has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.’
On new media
During his life time Thoreau experienced many new ways of communicating, such as postal services, newspapers and the telegraph. Although he liked to hear or read about new things, he’s not very convinced of most content these new media deliver:
‘I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.’
‘And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one cow run over, we never need read of another. One is enough.’
Doesn’t that sound familiar to you? The same can be said of social media nowadays. Aren’t we just communicating for the sake of communicating? This quote on the telegraph says it all:
‘We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.’
Thoreau was a veggie lover and felt it was unnecessary to eat meat. Why go through all the trouble involved? Or spend so much money on it, when plant-based foods do the job too? To live simply also means to eat simply.
‘The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught, and cleaned, and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well with less trouble and filth.’
On self-reflection and living in the present:
Thoreau seems to be the rare breed of man that loved to be around people as well as being alone. In Walden he often refers to the pleasures of taking time to think and write, to be alone with your own thoughts and being mindful.
‘I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.’
‘Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Explore the private sea of one’s being alone.’
Walden would probably be on the bestseller shelves in book stores today. It would fit perfectly next to the books about Wabi-Sabi, Lagom, Hygge and Ikigai.
‘I’ve spent days paddling a boat on Walden pond. Days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry. I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days and spent them lavishly.’
Thank you, Thoreau, for going against the stream of popular beliefs in your time and writing your thoughts and experiences down for us to read today.
It inspires me personally in my quest of simplifying and it feels I have found a new friend to guide me in this.
I’m also very curious about the other works by Thoreau, especially ‘Civil Disobedience’, which is said to have influenced Ghandi and Martin Luther King in organising peaceful protests.
// Do you have any favourite classics that are still relevant in this day and age?