Unexpected ironies enliven the routine of our days. Consider this: A company that sells cassette recordings of books for people to listen to in their cars reports that one of the most popular selections is Henry David Thoreau's "Walden."
Imagine commuters listening to Thoreau rhapsodize about life in the woods and the virtues of simplicity while they rush in quiet desperation through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Perhaps Thoreau would take some solace in the fact that Americans still find his message compelling - even if vicariously. "Why should we," he asks in "Walden," "live with such hurry and waste of life?"
In the popular imagination, Thoreau remains the 19th-century hermit who lived in primitive isolation at Walden Pond near Concord, Mass. But in fact his famous bivouac lasted only 26 months, and his lakeside cabin was just a mile or so from town.
By his own account, Thoreau had "more visitors while I lived in the woods than any other period of my life." On Saturdays his mother and sisters brought him something special to eat. He made regular trips to town "to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there." In other words, Thoreau was not a hermit but a commuter of sorts himself, a suburban sojourner who, like so many of us, led one life and fancied at times that he led another.
Born in 1817, Henry David Thoreau grew into a wiry young man with a rebellious spirit, tart personality, and keen mind. After graduating from Harvard, he taught school with his brother for a while, then worked as a day laborer. He later moved in with his mentor, the poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. In exchange for his room and board, Thoreau did odd jobs, tended the garden, tutored Emerson's son, and took walks with his host.
In 1845 Thoreau accepted Emerson's offer to let him "squat" on his land along Walden Pond. He and some friends cleared the site and built a cozy 10-by-15 foot cabin of boards and brick, inserted two glass windows, shingled the roof and walls, and stocked the interior with a bed, desk, and books.
Thoreau moved in on July 4, intent on conducting an experiment in independence. In the process of writing a book, he wanted to discover how many of life's presumed necessities could be discarded in order to experience the wonders of nature and the joys of self-culture.
From the start Thoreau viewed his venture in the woods not as a permanent escape but as a temporary retreat. He hoped to emerge from his sabbatical with a more mature understanding of the good life and a more penetrating sense of his own self and his larger society.
While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau grew beans, collected rocks and plants, and recorded in his journal what he observed around the pond and during daily hikes. Too many of his neighbors, he had decided, "live meanly, like ants." Their health and sanity were "frittered away by [meaningless] detail." To them he proclaimed: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand."
After two years of life in the woods, Thoreau sold his cabin and returned to Concord. He had discovered that a good life could be led best in what he called "partially cultivated country" like the village of Concord.
Thoreau published "Walden" in 1854 not to persuade everyone to abandon their factory jobs and city homes and build isolated cabins in the woods, but, instead, to show the benefits of plain living and high thinking within society.
Throughout his life, Thoreau remained wedded to his Concord community. "Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here," he wrote in 1858. "Here are all the friends I ever had or shall have, and as friendly as ever. A man dwells in his native valley like an acorn in its cap."
Amid this Christmas season Thoreau offers two vital lessons for today's harried commuters who despair because their calendars are too crowded and their lives too cluttered. First, he reminds us that a good life is not necessarily dependent on more and more goods. A person "is rich," he noted, "in proportion to the number of things he can do without." Second, he encourages us to slow our frenetic pace and take time to reflect on who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and what we value. "Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?" he asked. Why indeed.
David Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.