Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Hear a Different Drummer

Only because it was requested by a couple people, my rather cranky Amazon review of a book about a hero many consider a crank. (The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan)

I almost wonder if this book is intended to be an example of the type of paradoxical humor Thoreau enjoyed, given that it seems to be completely unnecessary with no imaginable audience. There is so much which annoys me on one early page defining the book that I'm going to concentrate on those matters to make my point.

The author tells us the book may offer little new to Thoreau experts. I'd never label myself an expert but I have a few dozen books by or about Thoreau and have attended several of the annual meetings of the Thoreau Society he refers to. (I've also made the walk many times from downtown Concord to Walden Pond and it's nowhere near as traumatic as he makes it out to be.) I think it's reasonable to assume that the audience for books about Thoreau is primarily made up of people who know quite a bit about him already. If you read Walden in school and thought Thoreau was a jerk, are you likely to buy a book which intends to prove you wrong? So he's telling most of his paying audience he has little to offer them.

He tells us the book is not a biography of Thoreau. Perhaps he means it's not a scholarly biography or not solely a biography, but the majority of the book is definitely a biography. He seems to think that being a freelance writer gives him some understanding of Thoreau. Sorry, come back in 150 years when your work is considered among the most important in American literature and I'll think you have something meaningful in common. He tells us he will not dwell on Thoreau's work and can't interpret Walden for us. Won't that make it rather difficult to explain the book's subtitle: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant?

The other potential audience for a book like this would be people who are just becoming aware of Thoreau and enjoy his work. For them, there are many better books than this one, many of which are mentioned in this book's Notes.

Want a better biography? Walter Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau or Robert Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Local history? Walden Pond: A History by Barksdale Maynard. Want to know what Thoreau really meant? There have been dozens of books offering interpretations of that, but mostly I'd suggest that if you want to know the Thoreau you don't know, you should read Thoreau. There are several annotated editions of Walden (Walter Harding's is my favorite), and a wide variety of books focusing on the journals by theme or date or editor's preference as well as the relatively complete journal in two large volumes, and a new scholarly edition underway. All Thoreau's other books and essays are also in print--decide for yourself what he meant.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

and it has a stupid-looking cover.