Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only that day dawns to which we are awake

I must own a half-dozen copies of Walden, more than any other book in my library.

There is the New American Library Mentor paperback which I bought new for 50 cents in 1956, my first Thoreau, which I read in Junior Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, the engineering student's required exposure to "the Big Ideas." The pages are yellowed now, and my underlinings and marginal notes have almost faded away, but I can still see flagged with red checks the words I had to look up -- tantivy, tantara, ebriosity, imbricated, pellicle, suent, esculents, and so on. It wasn't easy going. I'm still not sure what some of those words mean.

Never mind. Something of the book struck a chord, as I'm sure it has done for generations of idealistic students. To live deliberately. That was the idea. Not necessarily in a cabin in the woods, but not as a toy of fortune either. Deliberately.

Then there is the handsome Heritage Press edition of 1939, with wood engravings by Thomas Nason, which my aunt Charlotte gave me toward the end of her life.

And the big The Annotated Walden, by Philip van Doren Stern, one of the Clarkson N. Potter annotated classics, 1970, especially valuable for its endpaper map of Thoreau's Concord. A better and spritelier annotated edition is Walter Harding's Walden, Houghton Mifflin 1995, which has the same map and notes and sketches by Thoreau. Walden is not a book that especially needs annotations. They tend to weight down with excess baggage a book that was meant to travel light.

Which is why I like my little Shambhala abridged edition, 1992, the size of a pack of playing cards, light enough for a place in backpack or hip pocket. Pithy and perfect. On the cover is Michael McCurdy's wonderful wood engraving of Thoreau At the Cabin Door, of which I am proud to own a signed original. McCurdy is the artist who illustrated The Soul of the Night.

But if one had to own just one edition, I suppose it would have to be Shambhala's 2004 one-hundred-and-fiftith anniversary edition fully illustrated by McCurdy. Henry and Michael are a match made in heaven. Or if not in heaven, at least by the pond.

And every fan of Thoreau will want Stowell and Howarth's A Thoreau Gazetteer, which has every map you'll ever need.