When I was working on my master’s degree nearly forty years ago (forty years ago!), I took a course titled Walden. Each week students were expected to come to class with a reflection paper about the specific chapters to be discussed that evening. At the beginning of class, we would turn in our essays, and the professor would return to us the essays from the week before. On one of my papers, the prof wrote that he enjoyed reading my papers, because I approached Walden as a piece of nature writing – and he’d never thought of Walden as nature writing. I was surprised at the comment, because I’d never thought of it as anything else.
The professor was obsessed with the line in the book’s introduction about living deliberately. It became the theme for the entire course.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Over the course of the semester, my perspective on Walden shifted, and I became a bit obsessed with the line myself. To some extent, I still am. The question I sometimes ask myself is whether I would have taken the leap in my understanding of Walden had I not taken the class. Even though I noticed passages in the book about “a different drummer” and the sun as “but a morning star,” I practically read through them as I bounced from nature essay to nature essay. I didn’t take many literature and philosophy classes when I was in school, but it’s hard to ignore their value when one of them lets me know that I was missing the whole point.
In presidential debates, the candidates sometimes are asked to name their favorite book. Actually they are asked to name their favorite book other than The Holy Bible. I like the answers to this question, as it sometimes tells more about the individuals than their hyperbole on political issues. The answers may be as contrived as everything else that comes out of their mouths, but obviously they and their handlers thought about the implications of the answers. If I was ever pressed to name my favorite book, I’d have a tough time choosing between Walden and A Sand County Almanac. If not for that course forty years ago, Walden wouldn’t even be in the running.