Book Review: Thumbing Through Thoreau by Kenny Luck

Open any respectable book of quotations and there’s a 99.9 percent change you will see several from Henry David Thoreau. So, one might ask, is the world in need of a book consisting solely of selected quotes from Thoreau’s writing? Kenny Luck thought so, believing “we all could use a dose of Thoreau from time to time.” As a result, Luck compiled Thumbing Through Thoreau: A Book of Quotations by Henry David Thoreau, a book that differs from many collections of Thoreau’s quotes or writings in several ways.

The most noticeable difference is a graphic one. The cover is a portion of a watercolor painting that has been released in limited edition prints to benefit the Walden Woods Project. The project seeks to preserve the land near Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived for two years as he sought, as he put it, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Then, not only does each quote get its own page and printed in a variety of font sizes and shades, each page contains a black and white illustration by Jay Luke or Ren Adams. These elements seem designed to give a coffee table book feel to the work.

Although not containing as much material as more traditional compilations of Thoreau quotations, Thumbing Through Thoreau still takes a broad approach. Luck goes beyond Thoreau’s published books and essays. Luck says he approached Thoreau “from a devotional, rather than an academic point of view.” He spent hours going through Thoreau’s journals and correspondence and concluded that “the wisdom contained in [the] journal entries rivaled the most complex systems of thought laid out by any philosopher before or since.”

While small excerpts from those journals won’t convince the reader of that conclusion, Luck’s “devotional” approach has justification. After all, Thoreau is one of the major figures in the New England transcendentaliism movement. Thoreau’s writings reflect the movement’s bent toward idealism, rejection of conformity and finding spirituality in the individual and nature. Because these views applied to all aspects of society, Thumbing Through Thoreau categorizes the quotations into three broad sections, Society & Government, Spirituality & Nature, and Love.

Some of the most well-known bits of Thoreau’s Walden are here. There is “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” as well as perhaps the most famous sentence in the conclusion, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Yet by digging into the journals and correspondence Luck may present aspects of Thoreau with which many may not be as familiar or that demonstrate that Walden was not the onset of the philosophy and ideas it expresses. In fact, the quotations from the journals and correspondence are equally as contemplative and perhaps a bit more inward looking.

Throughout them, the concepts that imbued New England transcendentalism are present. For example, nearly six years before building his one room house on Walden Pond and embarking on a solitary life, Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself.” Walden was not a philosophy experiment, it was implementing an already existent belief system.

In that regard, Thumbing Through Thoreau may not be revelatory, or even surprising, to those familiar with Thoreau’s life. Yet the extent of one’s knowledge about Thoreau won’t keep a person from picking up the book when the mood strikes, whether it’s to look for a particular topic in the index or, as Luck did, thumb through Thoreau.

(This review is part of a “blog tour” for the book this month.)

It is always a short step to peace of mind.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 27, 1841

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1 comment to Book Review: Thumbing Through Thoreau by Kenny Luck

  • Don’t mean to go off-topic, but I’m rarely actually on the prairie while reading Prairie Progressive, and I am now, visiting my folks. I’m reporting that for the first time in recent memory, Texans in this highly Republican town are venturing to put up the occasional street sign in favor of the Democratic candidate for governor. In my experience, that’s a first.

    Just a message from the short-grass prairie!