Book Notes: Excursions, by Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau
205 pages. Anthem Press, 2007. $23

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In 1863, shortly after Henry David Thoreau’s untimely death, his sister Sophia cobbled together a book of some of his shorter works, and called it Excursions. This collection of some of the author’s essays sold well, seeing several printings over the years to come. In fact, its sales outshone Thoreau’s other works, proving that only in death do some authors become popular. Popularity was, of course, relative, and this book was never a best-seller, though it remains a favorite because it contains some of Thoreau’s finest short works, such as the seminal essay Walking.

In a new edition in the Anthem Travel Classics series, Excursions appears here with its nine essays preceded by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Biographical Sketch, a brief text about Thoreau’s life by one of the people who knew him best. It also contains a brief introduction by Thoreau scholar Jeffrey S. Cramer, discussing the collection and Thoreau’s approach to this type of travel writing.

Thoreau was a writer who traveled much, and wrote about what he saw and nature around him. In these essays, he muses on walking, on wild apples, on the colors of leaves in autumn and more. In Walking, he says, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering…”, and goes on to express his philosophy of walking. Here in the French Alps, though I don’t walk as much as I would like, I cannot but recall Henry’s words when I set out, even for brief walks, surrounded by the view of summits meeting the sky. His words resonate even today, more than 150 years after they were written, and this is the case with all of his nature writing. You may not want to examine leaves and ponds as he did, but reading Thoreau’s words, you are transported to his time, to his mind, as he muses upon the mysteries and beauty of nature.

This book is fitting in a series of travel books, and its compact size makes it the ideal book to slip into your backpack when you go out for a saunter; or even when you go to take the subway and want to read something to take you elsewhere. It may be priced a bit steeply for such a book, but it is well produced, printed and bound, and will likely last through many voyages. For those who are unfamiliar with Thoreau’s writing, this book is the best way to discover his work, aside from reading Walden. And if you’ve read Walden, and not delved into these shorter works, there is no more excuse: for Walking alone, this book is worth the price.