Can’t Stop the Train: A Review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I think I may’ve read Walden or Life in the Woods in university. It rings a bell. It was a text that I was told I should read. Now, years later, I decided to read Thoreau’s best known nonfiction work for very much the same reason. I thought it was something I should read, something like taking literary vitamins or running on a brain-growing treadmill. Many of the writers I read and listen to these days quote Thoreau, and especially Walden, extensively.
I ordered the book from our interlibrary loan system and it arrived just before I was scheduled to fly off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a little R&R. (I don’t recommend taking library books on vacation. That being said, I do it all the time.) I started reading Walden a little reluctantly. Published in 1854, the language is a bit different than today’s, but I found Thoreau’s style to be unencumbered and clean, easy to read. ten or so pages in, the reluctance dropped away, and I found it hard to leave the book alone. I’d become invested in Thoreau’s adventure and philosophy.
As I read on the sunny hotel balcony in the shady breeze, I was reminded of a phone conversation I’d had with my dad before leaving for Mexico. He’d said something like, “Things are changing too fast. Cell phone use is destroying us. It’s tearing people apart.”
I’ve heard nearly the same sentiment expressed by many people. Some of them are my older friends and some of them are younger than me. Henry David Thoreau thought something similar. He wasn’t yet concerned about cell phone use, but he did think that new technology, especially the railroad, would change people and society as a whole, irrevocably. He was right.
Here’s what Thoreau has to say about the railroad and how he perceives that it changed life in Concord, Massachusetts:
“Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, were on hand when the bell rang. To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.”
The clanging of the bells and the prompt train schedule that Thoreau writes about caused me to consider our bleeping phones and how, to folks like my dad, owners of those phones seem to be quite ruled by the technology they own just as Thoreau thought that people were becoming governed by the railroad. I’ve heard it said that we are talking and thinking faster than ever before, like in Thoreau’s train station, or not talking at all, but typing faster than ever before.
Either way, both Dad and Thoreau agree that all this technology is leading to a communication breakdown. And as Thoreau states that we should get off the railway’s track, Dad and others proclaim that we should get off the track of internet-based technology use. But time marches on and things change. For better or for worse, neither Dad nor Thoreau can halt the train of technology.
Talking to my dad and reading the timeless words of Henry David Thoreau, it became evident to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Living in the countryside and quite a distance from larger city centres, I think about my experience of traveling into the city to shop. There’s a general store here, and a bank, a hairdresser, an insurance agency and a daycare centre. It’s pretty quiet, somewhat like Thoreau’s woods. I can’t help but compare my trips into the city to Thoreau’s experience of going into town. He calls it “running the gauntlet of businesses.”
“…so that every traveler had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those [businesses] who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveler could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax. Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller’s; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor.”
By this account, the way businesses lure and seduce customers has changed very little since Thoreau’s time. After all these years, businesses provide the same basic type of services and merchandise as they did in the mid-1800s. After spending half a day running from store to store, bombarded visually and auditorially by products and advertising, I feel exactly as if I’ve run a gauntlet. I hear you, Henry David Thoreau, and I share your pain.
One thing I never knew about Thoreau or expected to discover is that he is the king of the backhanded compliment. I mean, I should’ve guessed. In Walden, he doesn’t always come across as a great lover of the human race, and he is obviously a skilled wordsmith. I like how he describes this guy, the ill-fated Colonel Hugh Quoil, a resident of Walden Woods who died shortly after Thoreau began his stint there:
“All I know of him is tragic. He was a man of manners, like one who had seen the world, and was capable of more civil speech than you could well attend to.”
I’ve run into a few folks capable of more civil speech than I could attend to. I’ve sat there bored stupid, praying that God would strike either the speaker or me dead, and past the point of caring which. Just shut-up already! Thoreau says it much more eloquently than I. I am, alas, not the queen of the backhanded compliment. Sadly, I’m both a bit too kind and a touch too straightforward to reign, but I appreciate how Thoreau sits on that throne.
It took about five hours to fly home from Puerto Vallarta. Now usually I drug myself into a semi-stupor with a couple Gravol, a strategy I highly recommend to make any flight fly. It’s not the first time an old guy has sat pretty much in my lap for an entire flight, but those other times were due to the closeness of the seats and the girth of the guy. This last flight, with Thoreau in my lap, the journey was smooth and enjoyable.
I didn’t quite finish reading Walden on the plane. When I’m enjoying reading something, I read it slowly, I savour it. I like to give the words time to sink into my brain and often I’ll read certain passages over. There are lots of books I skim. Walden is philosophy and Walden is poetry. These words deserve to be tasted and remembered.
Back at home in my recliner I discovered that, besides being the king of backhanded compliments, Thoreau wins the prize for most anticlimactic ending I’ve ever read. True, it’s not quite the ending, but it’s the ending of the account of his time spent on Walden Pond at the end of the second last chapter called “Spring”:
“Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.”
I can’t say exactly why the understatement of this ending, this big finish, struck me as so funny, but I just howled with laughter. “Similar to it.” That’s a good one. Sure, all my recent years in the same location are similar to one another, as well, but I try to pick out a few unique events from each as story material, a tidbit or two to tell about later. Not Thoreau. I guess he was done the book and, after reading the conclusion, so was I.