A somewhat literal summary of Walden by Henry David Thoreau might call it a recollection of one man’s peaceful (and inexpensive) life in the woods of Massachusetts during the late 1840s — documentation of an uncomplicated world that’s long since past.
But a book review like that would completely miss the point. The philosophy of simple living presented in Walden is actually aimed at you — the 21st-century American reader. Thoreau is begging you to reconsider what your life could look like if you just rejected a few of society’s popular habits.
Today, the necessities of life — food, shelter, and warmth — can be obtained with less than the first half of a middle-class paycheck. Most of us could work 50% less and still live very rich lives (especially from a historical perspective).
In spite of this, the majority of middle-class Americans spend the remainder on smartphone upgrades, TV subscriptions, take-out food, five-figure cars, and oversized houses. And when each paycheck is expended, they show back up at work to do it all over again.
I used to think this was a modern phenomenon, but Walden showed me that this strange behavior — and its antidote — is at least as old as our country.
"When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced."— Lauren & Steven | Trip Of A Lifestyle (@TOALifestyle) January 25, 2023
— Henry David Thoreau
To write this book review, I borrowed my copy of Walden from a public library for free. You can too. Or, when you use one of the affiliate links on this page to order a copy, we’ll earn a small commission (learn more). We keep our recommendations unbiased by dedicating 100% of our affiliate profits to charity.
Order a copy of Walden:
- New on Amazon (most convenient)
- Used on eBay (sometimes cheaper)
Tips for Reading Walden
Walden has sort of a weird format. It’s not really a “story,” and it’s also not a carefully ordered argument, so it’s kind of a difficult book to summarize.
In broad strokes, it’s a reflection on a very personal experiment: Thoreau goes to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, to build a small cabin with his bare hands. He lives there for two years enjoying nature, studying, and occasionally socializing — with very little need for income.
While the first (and longest) chapter is mostly about money, Walden is not a finance book. Many other sections contain beautiful, descriptive (and sometimes long-winded) writing about nearby landscapes and wildlife. But Walden isn’t just a collection of nature essays, either.
It’s hard to explain, but you’ll get the most out of it if you simply drop all your expectations before reading it. Try not to skip and skim the parts that aren’t “what you were hoping for.” Just let the author take you along on his journey, and you may learn as much about yourself as he did in those two years back in the 1840s.
Along the same lines, you need to resist the urge to get defensive while reading Walden. Prepare to be personally insulted. Many of Thoreau’s unorthodox opinions directly attack the standard American way of life — your way of life.
But here’s the thing: This guy has been dead for like 160 years. There’s no need to tense up and argue with him. Keep your shields down, and try to find as much truth in what he’s saying as possible, rather than focusing on his inconsistencies (which you will certainly find)*.
On a more practical note, you’ll probably also need to use a dictionary frequently to decipher sentences as you go. A combination of old-timey language and the fact that Thoreau is a bit of an academic forced me to read Walden way slower than more modern texts. On the plus side, I learned a bunch of new words!
Lastly, do yourself a favor and read as much of this book in a peaceful, outdoor location as possible. I know it’s strange to insist on a specific venue for reading, but one of the things Thoreau is trying to convince you of is to see the beauty of nature all around you, and it’s a lot easier to be convinced when, well, there’s nature all around you. Just trust me.
Best Thoreau Quotes from Walden
Walden Quotes on Money and Financial Independence
On the surface, Thoreau’s financial advice doesn’t seem to have much in common with today’s FIRE movement. He doesn’t talk about buying stock market index funds or retiring early by living on passive investment returns.
But those things are just minor particulars on the path to financial freedom. On a much deeper level, the principles that Thoreau used — low consumption and a clear definition of what “wealth” meant to him — are the same ones that matter most today.
After all, financial independence isn’t really about accumulating mountains of money; it’s about learning to be happy and free without worrying much about money at all. The modern FIRE community still has a lot to learn from Thoreau.
“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.“
“…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
“…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it…”
“The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.“
“Many a forenoon I have stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or teacher’s desk.”
“My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock…This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.“
Walden Quotes on News and Media
While Thoreau is clearly adamant that money (and the labor it represents) shouldn’t be spent on superfluous things, he also warns against wasting precious time and attention on information that isn’t useful.
In Walden, he frequently characterizes the news as an idle distraction from more important things (and even goes on a rant against mail 😂), but I think his reasoning can easily be extended today to cover things like Netflix binges and our endless scrolling on social media.
I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as Thoreau in criticizing journalism or cultivating a low-information diet, but Americans do spend a lot of time consuming garbage content — and apparently that can’t just be blamed on TV or the Internet, since Walden was published in 1854.
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks closer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.“
“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, — we never need read of another. One is enough. To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.“
Walden Quotes on Learning and Self-Improvement
A cursory reading of Walden might lead you to think that Thoreau was a misanthrope. After all, he disdainfully criticizes the typical American lifestyle throughout the book. But despite this, Thoreau is actually an optimist with a lot of hope for humanity.
Thoreau doesn’t think of himself as “special.” He earnestly believes that with a little study, work, and reflection, any person could live a life as free as his. The purpose of Walden (at least in my eyes) is to encourage other people to see a path toward a more peaceful life — not to dunk on them.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book[?]”
“…it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.“
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor…”
“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter when it is already spring.“
“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”
Walden Quotes on Nature and Travel
A large amount of Walden is spent detailing a natural landscape — the sights and sounds Thoreau experienced during his two years in the woods. From his flowery descriptions, you might imagine Walden Pond being as breathtaking as Yosemite National Park.
When I actually Googled the place though, I was surprised to find that it’s a pretty unremarkable body of water. This reminded me that there’s beauty all around us, and as much as I love to travel (and so did Thoreau), you really don’t need to circle the globe to appreciate all that nature has to offer.
Thoreau also reminds the reader to seize the day, travel while you’re still young, and squeeze as many different experiences as possible into one lifetime — pretty prophetic advice from a man who died at age 44.
“It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time…Not till we are completely lost, or turned round, do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature…Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.”
“No doubt they can ride at last who shall have earned their fare, that is, if they survive so long, but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to travel by that time.“
“One hastens to Southern Africa to chase the giraffe; but sure that is not the game he would be after. How long, pray, would a man hunt giraffes if he could?…I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.“
The beauty of this book is that it conveys information, argument, and philosophy as much as it does beauty and emotion. I don’t often read for pleasure, and I rarely re-read something from which I’ve learned all I can. But Walden is unique in that it evoked a feeling within me — a sense of peace and a connection with nature that I feel sure I’ll seek again in the future.
I consider it to be one of my all-time favorite books.
Order a copy of Walden:
- New on Amazon (most convenient)
- Used on eBay (sometimes cheaper)
* By the way, this doesn’t just apply to dead people. Being open-minded and charitable in your interpretation of opposing arguments is a life hack for getting smarter and making more friends. Reading stuff that you disagree with is a great way to practice this skill!