Mini-Reviews: Between the covers with Thoreau, William Morris and Michel Faber

Posted June 17, 2011 by in Book Reviews / 6 Comments

Walden and Civil DisobedienceTitle: Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
(Introduction by Jonathan Levin)
Published: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005
Genre(s): Nonfiction – Memoir / Ecology
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352

Originally published in 1854, Walden is the one book I own that I try to read every year, usually once Spring gets underway.  In Walden, Thoreau chronicles the time he spent living on Walden Pond (a little over two years, 1845-1847).  He did so as an experiment:  he wanted to know if he could live—and live happily—by giving up all of the unneeded luxuries in life, therefore living in very reduced conditions. He wanted to simply live:  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  Thoreau was of the belief that society was becoming over-civilized and that it was producing in them the penchant for blindly following and respecting the authority of those in charge without any critical thought of their own.  Thoreau also believed, in the words of Jonathan Levin (from the Introduction), that “Americans are suffering a kind of moral and spiritual depression, brought on by new and increasingly pervasive social and economic conditions that undermine individuals’ sense of material and moral agency.  These conditions require individuals to sacrifice their creativity and individuality in order to keep the social and economic mechanisms operating smoothly.”  So Thoreau freed himself from the constraints of society for two years and went off to live in the woods, on Walden Pond (owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson), a mile from his house in town.  In Walden, Thoreau writes about the results of this experiment, he describes beautifully his surroundings and that which he observed of Nature while he lived on Walden Pond, and he also writes about his views on politics and American life.  I love the way Thoreau describes his experiences with Nature and I am very interested in his views on life, society and government, and the ways in which they all affect one another.  Reading this book every Spring–and thereby picturing myself living on Walden Pond with Thoreau–is a way for me to bring myself out of the Winter funk I’ve been in for months, and a way for me to reconnect with Nature (because, admittedly, although I love Nature, I prefer to love it from a distance).

Civil Disobedience (first published in 1849) is an essay that Thoreau wrote in response to being jailed for not paying his poll tax, and refusing to do so after being detained by the town sheriff.  Thoreau refused to pay the tax because he did not want to support a government that supported slavery (Thoreau was an abolitionist) and he strongly disagreed with the Mexican-American War.  In the essay, Thoreau argues that government tends to be more harmful than helpful, and that people should not allow the government to override their consciences as citizens, and that at no time should citizens put uncritical faith in their government and allow the government to use them to perpetrate injustices against others.  It’s a great essay and worth the read.

News From NowhereTitle: News From Nowhere by William Morris
(Introduction by David Leopold)
Published: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009
Genre(s): Fiction – Utopian
Format: Paperback
Pages: 256

News From Nowhere is said to be William Morris’ best-known work of prose, although I had never heard of it before I won a copy of it on Twitter.  I haven’t read anything else that Morris has written, so I can’t really compare this book to his other works, but I really enjoyed reading News From Nowhere.  From the back cover:

The novel describes the encounter between a visitor from the nineteenth century, William Guest, and a decentralized and humane socialist future.  Set over a century after a revolutionary upheaval in 1952, these ‘Chapters from a Utopian Romance’ recount his journey across London and up the Thames to Kelmscott Manor, Morris’ own country house in Oxfordshire.

Morris did not believe in state socialism; his idea of a utopia was a socialistic/communistic society that was completely in the hands of the people, with no central government.  He wanted to completely change the relationship between humankind and nature, in a positive way.  News From Nowhere is a good piece of fiction that articulates Morris’ views well, while also having a decent storyline.  I found it to be a very interesting, rather quick read.  I thought the way in which William Guest came into contact with this society from the future was a neat idea (no spoilers), and the characters were well-defined, even though the story was mainly used as a vehicle for making the author’s views more accessible and widely read.  Morris definitely has some interesting views on what he would consider to be the perfect society, and I found his fictional socialistic society (sans central government) much more appealing than all the others I’ve read about.  If you’re interested in this kind of thing, and you haven’t read News From Nowhere, I recommend giving it a read.  It was pretty darned good.

The Crimson Petal and the WhiteTitle: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Published: Mariner Books, 2003
Genre(s): Fiction – Historical
Format: Paperback
Pages: 944

I read The Crimson Petal and the White for last month’s #TuesBookTalk discussion, and as the title suggests, it is a book about virtue (the white) and immorality (the crimson).  The story is set in Victorian London (mid- to late-1800’s) and centers on a prostitute named Sugar.  The other main character in the story is William Rackham, a man with a rather strange wife, who is expected to take over his father’s large perfume business (even though he abhors that idea and dreams of becoming a famous writer instead).  William finds Sugar—who wants more than anything to escape from her current situation and have a better life—and his lust for her soon resembles something more like love.  Then all kinds of crazy things start happening.  The Crimson Petal and the White will make you think twice about the kinds of people whom you consider to be virtuous, and those whom you would judge as immoral.

This book was recommended to me years ago by someone, but I never got around to reading it back then and I completely forgot about it.  I’m very glad that we ended up reading it for #TuesBookTalk, because it was excellent.  The storyline is great, the characters are awesome, and there are so many funny one-liners in this book that made me laugh out loud.  I was really sucked in by this book (in fact, I didn’t even stay on schedule with the rest of the #TuesBookTalk group… I didn’t want to stop reading at one point, so I just kept on going and finished it).  I’m normally not a huge fan of historical fiction, but The Crimson Petal and the White was worth all 944 pages of my time.  I truly enjoyed it and I recommend it to anyone who likes a good historical fiction novel.

(Small disclaimer:  This book does include a few explicit sex scenes… after all, it is about a prostitute.  But they’re short and could easily be skipped over if you find them offensive.)


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  • I’ve read Civil Disobedience and want to read Walden, soon. I like the idea of reading it every Spring.

  • Wow, what a great tradition. I love the idea of rereading a certain book at the same time every year. I do that with movies. My “reader’s panic” (i.e. too many unread great books) hasn’t allowed me to get to that point with literature. 🙂 Someday. . .

    • I know exactly what you mean. I get “reader’s panic,” too. Walden is the only book I re-read regularly.

  • I read both Thoreau books years ago, but I need to revisit them. They are books that need to be read more than once. I’ve never read William Morris, but I need to keep him in mind. Totally agree about Crimson Petal. I’m going to try to write up a mini-review tonight. Try being the key word. 🙂

    • News From Nowhere was definitely interesting. Check it out when you find some time. Hahaha!

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