Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is one of those well-known texts we learn in school and quote regularly, especially as we long to "live deliberately."  Yet although I was certainly familiar with this famous piece of work, I had never actually read it in its entirety.  I took ownership of it, visiting Walden Pond itself and quoting my favorite lines, but I didn't realize that the excerpts I read in school were part of a much larger work.  So when I finally sat down to read the book, I was immediately intrigued and in complete agreement with his assessments.  I felt inspired as Thoreau stressed the need to escape the mundane routines and live more thoughtfully. 

However, many passages were verbose, presenting themselves as diatribes rather than reflections.  Other parts were so intimately detailed as to be excessive in description, tempting my eyes to skim the page quickly rather than capture every word.  At times I smirked in my dissent with his views, inwardly chuckling at the pretentious nonsense he considered to be self-evident truths.  And then suddenly a passage would strike me at my core, resounding deeply through my mind and body as I encountered it. 

Allow me to give an example.  I was working through his chapter on “The Ponds,” which is full of lavish descriptions of his most beloved landscape.  However, I have seen this pond in person, and I am not nearly as impressed with its beauty as this chapter would indicate.  It’s just a pond.  You can see the whole thing quite easily in one glance, as it is not very large.   It’s quiet and still, with no evidence of teeming life and movement within its waters.  The woods surround it on all its edges except where we have now inserted a paved road.  In the summer, it is full of people splashing and swimming in it, and the autumn offers some lovely fall colors around it.  Nevertheless, it’s just a pond. Yet to Thoreau’s eyes, this was the embodiment of heaven on earth.  He had no trouble filling pages and pages with descriptions of it and sonnets dedicated to it.  He would not have had to travel very far to reach the more beautiful coasts of Cape Ann or Cape Cod, which share the same borders but offer far more extravagant views.  But nothing would have been able to surpass the quiet elegance of Walden Pond for Thoreau, and I have a feeling that no amount of persuasion could have convinced him to change his mind.

                        (This is one of my personal photos of Walden Pond)

I have seen some spectacular landscapes in the world, even within this past year.  And yet reading Walden has brought me to wonder how they truly appear outside my biased viewpoint.  When I return to the places I love the most, will they still contain all of their majesty in my eyes?  Despite his lavish descriptions of the pond, Thoreau has one moment of self-awareness in this chapter, which struck me deeply.  He wrote that despite the adjustments people had made around Walden Pond, “it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me.”

It's hard to fully explain why this line meant so much to me, particularly at the time I read it.  When I find myself traveling in other parts of the world or returning to the places I already know well, I think it's incredibly healthy to recognize that all the change is in me.  We have very little control over the circumstances in our lives, and we have to continually adjust ourselves in order to keep moving forward.  During this process, we might have the tendency to see things differently, tinged with nostalgia or bitterness, joy or heartbreak.  And while I think it is fine to prefer some locations over others, we must always remember that we are influenced by our own perspective.  Wherever we go, we have to bring ourselves along.  Thoreau's subtle insight broke through the screen I had unknowingly placed before my vision, helping me to appreciate my present situation but also look forward to the future ahead of me.  Regardless of my next step, there has certainly already been a lot of change within me, and I will bring that with me as I move forward.

There is so much wisdom in this beautiful piece of work.  Thoreau says that each man ought to make his life worthy of a person’s deepest contemplation and live it earnestly. Reading this does remind me to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when I die, I may know that I have truly lived. That is why I am here and that is what I must do.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Doctor Zhivago

Brilliant, it's just brilliant.  I haven't written on this blog in a while, but I must process what I just read and take a moment to publicly sigh in appreciation of it.  I love Russian literature, as you probably know by now, but I have largely focused on the 19th century.  However, there is also a lot of wonderful work from the 20th century, such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Nobel Prize winner.

I feel like I have to tell you a little bit of Pasternak's story because it does help you appreciate this novel.  Before Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak had only published poetry and gained a fairly significant following from his work.  But during this time, he also quietly worked on his magnum opus, carefully crafting it for ten years.  When he was finished, he sent it to some Russian publishers, but they refused to publish it due to the backlash they might receive.  Ultimately, he handed his manuscript to an Italian publisher, famously telling him: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad."  The book was an instant sensation across Europe, bringing him international attention as well as Russian persecution.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was unable to attend the ceremony as he knew he would be denied reentry to his beloved country.

This story is an intimate portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution.  We know very little of the big picture but grasp the rumors and moments that Dr. Zhivago witnesses.  There is something compelling and ingenious about this structure, even as it is irritating and confusing.  It's written in pieces, cutting in and out of the story abruptly and erratically.  Without an omniscient narrator, we have an opportunity to feel how the Russians must have felt during the revolution, unsure how each side was doing in its grueling struggle.  They could only guess the progress based on whichever rumors reached their towns, carrying in conflicting stories about the various generals and leaders.  Moreover, I couldn't tell whether Pasternak favored one side over the other, the White Army or the Red Army.  Instead, I simply felt Zhivago's earnest desire for the conflict to end, regardless of which side of the revolution would receive credit for it.

Another significant component of the novel is its wide spectrum of characters coming in and out of the text.  Throughout his arduous journey, Zhivago meets a number of different people, some of whom only interact with him in a passing moment.  He talks to people on the train, at the hospital, in labor camps, and at home.  At times, Pasternak will devote a whole chapter to introduce a character and tell his story and then never mention that character again.  I find this incredibly realistic, as we all have fleeting interactions with strangers every day.  In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak plays with the concept of "coincidence," bringing some of these strangers back into Zhivago's life in the most unexpected moments.  I loved this, for I believe we are always connected with the people around us, whether or not we take the time to recognize it.  Some scenes which should seem important pass quickly with little description, while other nominal scenes are drawn out with great detail.  In presenting the story in this way, Pasternak is challenging the notion of which events are the most important in our lives.  Are they the big occasions such as weddings and funerals?  Or is it the everyday conversations and routines that have a greater impact on us?

In between moments of the story, Pasternak tosses in insightful commentary of human nature, society, revolution, and struggle.  I could pull out dozens of quotes that struck me and can stand on their own merit.  He beautifully weaves in descriptions as well, making the landscape come alive through his pen.  For example, the snow is an important component of the novel, appearing as a recurring motif alongside the characters.  At times it represents the heavy, depressing emotions of the ongoing war.  It powerfully crashes on the land and freezes everything in place.  Yet in other scenes, the snow is a beautiful relief, glittering in the sun with hope and beauty for those who watch it.  It reminds them of childhood play, building snow forts and snowmen.  The snow interacts with the people as one of the characters, evoking various emotions, reflecting their current predicaments, and foreshadowing the future.

I admit that it took some effort for me to get through this whole novel, as its unorthodox structure made it a little more difficult to move quickly through the text.  However, I truly enjoyed every minute of it, feeling enriched by each page.  I feel like Pasternak gave me an incredible understanding of the Bolshevik Revolution, and reading his novel allowed me to experience this piece of history in a realistic way.  Thus, I highly recommend that you read it, as it is an informative, expansive, heartbreaking classic.

For more on Russian literature, check out my lists below:
Great Russian Authors of the 19th Century
Great Russian Authors of the 20th Century