I finished reading Walden by Thoreau yesterday. I believe I had read part of it in high school but I certainly wasn't ready for it then. Thoreau has an interesting style which is somewhat "stream of consciousness" but quite often he will startle you with a couple sentences or paragraphs of pure brilliance and amazing insight. He would insert bits of such insight into beautiful descriptions of the pond, of animals and the seasons.
For those looking to get a "cliff notes" view of his philosophy and worldview, you just have to read the first chapter, where he lays out why he went into the woods for two years. The guy was most likely a genius of some kind (and educated at harvard) and although kind of eccentric, I think he could clearly see the vices and weaknesses of American and Western society much clearer than others. (He is, after all, the one who wrote the essay on Civil Disobedience that went on to greatly influence Martin Luther King and Gandhi. He hated slavery passionately and refused to pay the poll tax and was to jail for it.)
Overall I loved how in Walden he:
- critiqued how Americans even in the early 19th century were too inclined to waste the "best years of their lives" on earning enough money to build enormous homes they don't need and don't even feel comfortable in. They do it simply because it's expected and everyone else is doing it. (Sounds quite familiar in the 21st century as well).
- esteemed writing as the highest of the art forms because you can tap into immortal truth, and contribute to it as well. He loved books passionately and knew the classics in-depth.
- was a visionary in terms of human rights and economics and the pursuit of happiness outside of material things
Finally, I discovered a cool website where I actually listened to the final chapter of Walden online (because I had to return the book to my sister). It's www.librivox.com and is completely free--classics are read by volunteers into a big database and the guy I listened to was very good. My next book, which I started yesterday, is Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. So far it is awesome.