Walden is one of my favorite books, but my appreciation of it came slowly and not without help. I tried to read the book on my own when I was sixteen years old, but never got past the opening passages about food, clothing, and shelter. In college, I struggled through the entire book as a requirement for a nineteenth-century American lit class. That particular reading did not leave a strong impression either, although I do remember that I preferred it to Bartleby the Scrivener and Sister Carrie. After graduating from college, I moved to Massachusetts and got to walk the perimeter of Walden Pond for myself. After that initial visit I read the book again, and finally the words began to take hold – enough that when I returned to college for a masters degree I immediately enrolled in a philosophy course simply titled “Walden.”
The Walden class met one evening each week. Prior to each meeting, students had to write a short essay describing their impressions of the chapters to be discussed that night. At the end of each class, everyone would walk to the front of the room to turn in their most recent paper and pick up the one from the week before. On one of my papers, the professor had written, “I enjoy reading your essays, because you see Walden so differently from me. You think of it as nature writing. I’ve never thought of it that way.” I was shocked, because I had never considered Walden as anything other than nature writing. The prof wouldn’t have surprised me more had he told me the book was fiction and Thoreau had made the whole thing up. I am sure the professor had no idea how much his simple statement affected me. I haven’t interpreted Walden quite the same since.