Looking for Walden

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” — Henry David Thoreau

Thanks to the digital tools of modern technology, I now have a mind-boggling array of options — the whole world — at my fingertips.

Without leaving the desk chair in my home office, I can converse online with colleagues I’ve never met in Cleveland, Melbourne, London or Los Angeles. With iPhone in hand, I can promote my own work on half a dozen social networks, from Facebook to Pinterest. I can order kitchen gadgets, books, pet supplies, designer handbags, fruit baskets, skincare products and cowboy boots from countless online catalogs.

Every day I have more choices than I can reasonably consider.  And so, like many over-connected Americans, I carry the burden of complexity — a burden so overwhelming that there are times when I imagine trading places with Henry David Thoreau.

It’s only fitting that I rediscovered Thoreau the week I purged my home office with a dust rag and a vacuum cleaner. The autumn mornings felt ripe for pitching and sorting, for creating blank space where none existed before.  Walden, Thoreau’s famous treatise on simple living, was jammed behind a pile of unread paperbacks on an overcrowded shelf.

Like other writers with good intentions, I’ve admired Thoreau but hadn’t read Walden since it appeared many years ago on a required reading list at my state university. I’d retained only a few pithy quotes, and recalled only sketchy details of Thoreau’s Spartan cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. But suddenly, here was the book, whispering to me across the centuries —Simplify, simplify!”– and begging me to take another look.

Glancing through the pages, I realized Thoreau’s words had been wasted on me when I first read them. At the time I was a college student living in a cramped dormitory, eager to graduate and buy enough furniture to fill a spacious suburban apartment.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau warned in the chapter titled “Economy.”  Only an overworked adult — one who is drowning in the debris of modern life and pressed by the weight of too many commitments — could truly appreciate Thoreau’s genius, I mused as I kept reading.

Yet it also occurred to me that things were vastly different for Thoreau. The “comforts of life” in the 1840s were not exactly cushy by today’s standards. His notion of luxury might have been taking tea in his mother’s bone china saucers. So what had he given up to commune with nature?

Even before he moved to Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t accumulated three television sets or a closetful of designer clothes. He didn’t own several pairs of expensive athletic shoes for all those philosophical walks he took. He didn’t wonder where he’d store his blender or Tupperware while he roughed it in the woods. His cot in the cabin couldn’t have been lumpier than the straw-filled mattresses in most mid-19th-century homes. And Thoreau never had to trade a personal computer for a pencil.

With all due respect, I wonder, how tough was Thoreau’s sabbatical with simplicity? Is it true that he occasionally walked from Walden Pond back to Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife had a home-cooked supper waiting for him?

As Andrew Delbanco notes in his wise book, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), reading Thoreau can make us feel “accused of hoarding comforts.”  We might even try to find holes in Thoreau’s impassioned pitch for the simple life. And yet Thoreau is, as Delbanco says, “an irresistible writer; to read him is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need.”

How true. Just as Thoreau did, I’d like to weed out, pare down, live deliberately, be a resident philosopher. (Would the family miss me?) A life devoid of clutter sounds positively blissful, especially when there are no empty spaces on my calendar.

But making choices is so much more difficult in a culture fueled by sheer busyness and commercialism. There are few places, few wooded Waldens, where one can escape the incessant bombardment of to-do lists or product advertising.

Visiting the “real” Walden Pond in Concord not long ago, I was amazed and disappointed to find the place overrun. Locals were strewn on its small beach. You couldn’t walk the path around the pond without rubbing shoulders with other curious sightseers; there wasn’t a spot left for soulful, solitary reflection.

If nothing else, my rendezvous with Thoreau got me thinking. What — and how much — do I really need? What price have I paid for technology and convenience? In which landfill will all my stuff end up?

And how would I fare if I were delivered into a place I fear as much as I need, as Delbanco put it? Could I survive in a one-room cabin with barely more than chair, a wooden table, a bowlful of raw vegetables, and my laptop? Honestly, I wish I could. — Cindy La Ferle

–A slightly different version of this post was published in The Christian Science Monitor. The original piece is reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home and in McDougal Littell’s American Literature textbook.–