Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: No 64

This account of one man’s rejection of American society has influenced generations of free thinkers
Thoreau’s Walden Pond: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’
Thoreau’s Walden Pond: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’ 

On Independence Day 1845, an idealistic young American (Thoreau was just 28) turned his back on what he saw as his country’s depressing materialism, its commercial and industrial soullessness and took himself off to a life of solitude in a country cabin near Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. In his famous account of this experiment, Thoreau later wrote:

“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.

“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Full Review:


Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck“Cannery Row is a novel by American author John Steinbeck, published in 1945. It is set during the Great Depression in Monterey, California, on a street lined with sardine canneries that is known as Cannery Row. The story revolves around the people living there: Lee Chong, the local grocer; Doc, a marine biologist; and Mack, the leader of a group of derelicts.”


“While I understand the New York Times’ reservations about Steinbeck’s preachy tendencies and his occasional heavy-handedness, he just as often provides light and beautiful prose, prose brimming with warmth and charm. The opening of Cannery Row is a case in point:

 ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.’


Yes – a great novel from Steinbeck. One of his shorter novels. And arguably the better for it.

Like Tortilla Flat, a tad misogynistic and a tad sentimental (Steinbeck regretted the way the earlier work was seen to patronise and sentimentalise the poor characters in the stories – if not simple savages, then simple bums), but it is also a beautiful mediation on life and how it runs away with itself.

Mr A

The Tempest – Criticism from the British Library Website

Arthur Rackhams Illustrations to the TempestPost-colonial reading of The Tempest:


The Tempest and the literature of wonder


Prospero: magician and artist


Prospero: a Renaissance Magus


The first night of The Tempest


Tempestuous words: The Tempest and Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation





The Things They Carried by Tim O’ Brien

“Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until 20 years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.”

The Things They Carried by Tim O_ Brien

This passage, from a chapter called “How to Tell a True War Story,” gives succinct voice to some of the themes that preoccupy Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried.” Described simply as “a work of fiction,” the book is self-evidently ­autobiographical, a record of the memories of a writer in his 40s named Tim O’Brien, who two decades earlier was a soldier in Vietnam. His account of what happened — amid the hamlets and forests of the Batangan Peninsula and in other areas of operation — to him and the other members of his platoon is punctuated by rueful, sometimes anguished reflections on the elusiveness of meaning and the fraught relationship between truth and invention.

“War — perhaps especially a war that, on the American side, began in deception and continued in confusion — has a way of blurring such distinctions. What happens in combat can be grotesque, absurd, senseless and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Capturing this in prose that upholds the post-Hemingway, Raymond Carver-era values of plainness and specificity is a challenge. “In any war story, but especially a true one,” O’Brien writes, “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” As a result, the standard of truth is not epistemological, but visceral: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”

““The Things They Carried” has lived in the bellies of American readers for more than two decades. O’Brien’s third book about Vietnam (following “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and “Going After Cacciato”), it sits on the narrow shelf of indispensable works by witnesses to and participants in the fighting, alongside Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Tobias Wolff’s “In Pharaoh’s Army” and James Webb’s “Fields of Fire.” While he conveys the details of grunt-level life and death — the weight of boots and weapons, the smell of mud and vegetation, the split-second swerves from tedium to terror — with startling immediacy, O’Brien is also haunted by the way experience is altered by the passage of time, by the gap that opens up between his young and middle-aged selves. Some of the most wrenching moments in the book find him back home, at 43, with a career and a family and a restless itch to make sense of his earlier transformation from a Minnesota college student with mildly antiwar politics to a member of the squad whose stories he will eventually borrow.

“In 1990, when Houghton Mifflin published the book, Vietnam was still recent history, its individual and collective wounds far from healed. Just as the years between combat and publication affected O’Brien’s perception of events, so has an almost exactly equal span changed the character of the writing. “The Things They Carried” is now, like the war it depicts, an object of classroom study, kept relevant more by its craft than by the urgency of its subject matter. The raw, restless, anguished reckoning inscribed in its pages — the “gut hate” and comradely love that motivated the soldiers — has come to reflect conventional historical wisdom. Over time, America’s wars are written in shorthand: World War II is noble sacrifice; the Civil War, tragic fratricide; Vietnam, black humor and moral ambiguity.”

I’m don’t think this book justifies the label of classic: it reads now like a hundred other books, could have been written by a hundred other authors, and has little of anything timeless to say – that is, it may have spoken to those living in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but it didn’t speak to me. It has no art, over and above the monotonous art of the creative writing workshop, to speak of, and there is nothing novel about it. This book isn’t read now for a reason, it has been buried under a thousand thousand similar works of fiction, and no one can be bothered to dig it up. Reading it is no longer a rich and rewarding experience.

Mr A

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – another American story of men escaping women

“When Henry James looked at women, he imagined that they thought like him. When Updike looked at women, he imagined that they thought about him.”

Praised to an extent few writers will ever achieve … John Updike and family in 1966.

US culture is riddled with stories of men who yearn to be free – by Updike’s time, all that was left was the mock heroism of suburban tragicomedy

In 1960, a 28-year-old writer named John Updike published his second novel, Rabbit, Run. The New York Times called it a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion”. It singled out his stylistic achievement in particular, praising him for having created a “perfectly pitched voice for the subject”. This early review set the tone for what would follow, and for many years Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were hailed as a kind of unquestioned trinity of the best modern American novelists. When he died in 2009, 23 novels, countless stories, essays, and a few volumes of poetry later, the New Yorker pronounced him “one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing.” Even bearing in mind that the New Yorker had been, in essence, Updike’s house magazine for 50 years, this remains praise of an order few writers will ever achieve. Whether it’s true is, of course, another question. It was Rabbit, Run that started it all, and now Radio 4 has decided to run Rabbit as its Book at Bedtime, giving listeners a chance to judge for themselves.

Eventually Updike would write four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, his suburban everyman. Angstrom is too intellectually limited to be considered Updike’s alter ego; call him instead Updike’s altered ego, an artfully reconstituted, carefully delimited, sometimes monstrous, sometimes pathetic, persona by means of which Updike surveyed US postwar life. The New York Times described Angstrom, a former basketball star feeling trapped by his suburban life of marriage and fatherhood, as “an older and less articulate Holden Caulfield”; it’s not a bad comparison. Updike helped map what later became known as “Cheever country”: the white, affluent, suburban landscape of stunted hopes and spiritual anomie through which Harry Angstrom will take his picaresque journey. Updike’s bitter joke, however, is that Rabbit can’t run.

In this sense, Rabbit, Run is a clever subversion of an old US motif: the man on the run from the suffocating effects of society, as if a tragicomic western had lost its way and ended up trapped in southeastern Pennsylvania. But this tradition is also endlessly troped as men escaping the domestic snares of women, a tradition which Rabbit, Run cheerily joins. From Huck Finn lighting west for the Territory to escape Aunt Polly’s efforts to “sivilize” him, to Charles Ingalls, with his itch for travel and his wife who insists they build a little house on the prairie for their girls, to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty taking off on the road: US popular culture is riddled with stories of men who yearn to be free, and the women who yearn only for them not to be. These are doubtless very enjoyable stories for men to read, but for women they can be quite irksome. Always cast as the smothering presence, the old ball-and-chain pinning men down who would otherwise roam wild, women end up symbolising dependence and paralysis while men get to symbolise independence and liberty. I know which one I prefer.

At the beginning of the novel, 26-year-old Harry climbs into his car and leaves his depressed, pregnant young wife, Janice, and heads south with dreams of Floridian paradise. He stops for fuel and directions; instead of being given a map, he is given advice that sums up the novel: “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” Drift is not an option; Harry, who shares a rabbit’s proclivities for procreation, also shares its legendary inability to win the race after starting out in front. The imperative of the title means that some unseen voice is telling Rabbit to run, perhaps suggesting his internal compulsions, or some kind of higher power – whether of the authorial or spiritual kind – urging him on. But by 1960, there was nowhere to run: the frontier was well and truly closed, and all that was left for men was the mock heroism of suburban tragicomedy, running in circles.

Part of the problem for women reading Rabbit, Run is that Updike made the decision to have Harry choose between two stereotypes: after returning home Harry leaves Janice again, this time moving in with a prostitute. Janice, the asexual mother, is small, childish, bony; the prostitute Ruth is voluptuous, large, welcoming and fecund. There are those who argue that Updike is ironising this stereotypical choice, showing how narrow and foolish it is, and it is true he gives both Ruth and Janice slightly more complex interior lives at points in the novel. But Updike doesn’t imagine them really having any desires that are not centred around domesticity or keeping a man, whether because, as in Ruth’s case, they fall madly in love with him or, as in Janice’s case, they merely want to avoid social humiliation. Either way, to judge it against a modern metric, it’s fair to say Rabbit, Run fails the Bechdel test (requiring that two or more female characters discuss a topic other than men).

In 1960, Richard Gilman described Rabbit, Run as both a “grotesque allegory of American life, with its myth of happiness and success”, and a “minor epic of the spirit thirsting for room to discover and be itself”. It remains the case that only male characters get to be treated as allegories of US life, grotesque or otherwise. Mankind can denote all humanity; womankind can only denote all women. Surely part of “the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing” was its inability to recognise the full humanity of half of humanity – the female half; and if Updike is to be put in the same class as Henry James, then he should be measured by the same standards.

When Henry James looked at women, he imagined that they thought like him. When Updike looked at women, he imagined that they thought about him. For me, questions about misogyny in literature are of limited efficacy at best; I prefer judging a novel by how well it thinks about the problem it has set itself. Rabbit, Run is a novel ruminating on the costs of patriarchal society that is partly limited by the very limits it depicts, but cannot quite overcome. The incompleteness remains, while the novel endures.

 Sarah Churchwell is professorial fellow in American literature at the University of London. Rabbit, Run is Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime until 28 April.


Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling by Soren KierkegaardKierkegaard (1813-1855), unlike the philosophers of his time, based everything on subject experience: there’s no point concerning ourselves with objective truths: thee we have to choose to either accept or reject anyway – rendering them pointless: it still comes back to us to choose. It is that choice, that individual subjective moment, that is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and which makes him the starting point for the existentialist philosophical movement of the 20th Century.

“Kierkegaard wanted to understand the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when “God tested [him] and said to him, take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain that I shall show you.” Abraham had a choice to complete the task or to refuse to comply to God’s orders. He resigned himself to the three-and-a-half-day journey and to the loss of his son. “He said nothing to Sarah, nothing to Eliezer. Who, after all, could understand him, for did not the nature of temptation extract from him a pledge of silence? He split the firewood, he bound Isaac, he lit the fire, he drew the knife.” Because he kept everything to himself and chose not to reveal his feelings he “isolated himself as higher than the universal.”


Critics have universally praised the book as one of the lynchpins of the existentialist movement…

“Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term “existentialism” and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. …they were interested in people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and Nietzsche’s Übermensch are representative of people who exhibit Freedom, in that they define the nature of their own existence. Nietzsche’s idealized individual invents his own values and creates the very terms they excel under. By contrast, Kierkegaard, opposed to the level of abstraction in Hegel, and not nearly as hostile (actually welcoming) to Christianity as Nietzsche, argues that the objective certainty of religious truths (specifically Christian) is not only impossible, but even founded on logical paradoxes. Yet he continues to imply that a leap of faith is a possible means for an individual to reach a higher stage of existence that transcends and contains both an aesthetic and ethical value of life.”

“In 1949 Helmut Kuhn wrote of the dread of the choice to follow God. “The decisive act through which everything is won or lost is called choice, a conception formulated by Kierkegaard and faithfully upheld by the majority of Existentialists. Choice, as the term is generally understood, is the act of giving preference to one among several possibilities or of deciding in favor of one or two alternatives. And since every choice has, at least potentially, a moral significance, the primary alternative, which underlies all other alternatives, will be that of good and evil. Choice, according to this common-sense view, lies between good and evil. Kierkegaard and his modern followers entertain an altogether different idea of choice. In the first place, the act under consideration, they insist, is not to be confused with those insignificant decisions with which in every minute of our waking existence we carry on our lives. Each one of these “little choices will reveal itself under analysis as the choice of a means towards a predetermined end. They give effect to a prior determination which underlies and guides them. Not with that merely executive activity are we chiefly concerned as moralists and philosophers. We must rather focus on those cardinal acts on which our whole existence hinges the moments which place us at the parting of roads, and as we then choose, our choice, the dread Either /Or, will either save or ruin us. It is this Great Choice which, as the organizing principle, animates the little choices of our daily lives.”


A very interesting read if you are to understand where Camus is coming from with his notions of the absurd and individual choice: Camus is pretty much Kierkegaard in a world without god: it’s all down to the individual creating a meaningful existence through choosing in a meaningless world.



Mr A


Get to Know Socrates, Camus, Kierkegaard & Other Great Philosophers with the BBC’s Intelligent Radio Show, In Our Time

When writer, politician, and BBC radio and television personality Melvyn Bragg began his long-running radio program In Our Time, which brings academics together to discuss philosophy, history, science, religion, and culture, he didn’t think the show would last very long: “Six months,” he told The Scotsman in 2009, “but I’ll have a go.” Now, seventeen years after the show began in 1998, In Our Timeis going strong, with millions of listeners from around the world who tune in on the radio, or download the In Our Time podcast. Though it’s easy to despair when faced with the onslaught of mass media devoted to triviality and sensationalism, Bragg has shown there’s still a sizable audience that cares about thoughtful engagement with matters of import, and in particular that cares about philosophy.

Though the subject takes a beating these days, especially in unfavorable comparisons to the hard sciences, the concerns articulated by philosophers over the centuries still inform our views of ethics, language, politics, and human existence writ large. In Our Time’s philosophy programs follow the same format as the show’s other topics—in Bragg’s words, he gets “three absolutely top-class academics to discuss one subject and explore as deeply as time allow[s].” In this case, the “subject,” is often a proper name, like Simone WeilDavid HumeAlbert CamusSimone de Beauvoir or Socrates.

The show just as often tackles philosophical movements like SkepticismNeoplatonism, or The Frankfurt School, that aren’t associated with only one thinker; likewise, Bragg and his guests have devoted their discussions to longstanding philosophical problems, like the existence of Free Will, and historical developments, like the Continental-Analytic Split in Western philosophy.

Though there is certainly no shortage of high quality resources for people who wish to learn more about philosophy—such as the many free courses, podcasts, and lectures we’ve featured on this site—few are as immediately accessible as In Our Time’s philosophy discussions. Bragg describes his preparation for each show as “swotting”—or cramming. He’s not an expert, but he’s knowledgeable enough to ask pertinent questions of his guests, who then go on to educate him, and the listeners, for the almost hour-long conversation. Hear how well the approach works in the In Our Time philosophy programs featured here. At the top, Bragg discusses the philosophy and activism of Bertrand Russell with academic philosophers A.C. Grayling, Mike Beaney, and Hilary Greaves. Below that, he talks Kierkegaard with Jonathan Ree, Clare Carlisle, and John Lippitt. Just above, hear Bragg discuss Jean-Paul Sartre with Jonathan Rée, Benedict O’Donohoe, and Christina Howells. Finally, below, hear his conversation on Karl Marx with Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Stedman Jones.

These four examples are but a small sampling of the many compelling In Our Timephilosophy discussions. Explore, stream, and download dozens more at the BBC Radio 4 site or hear them on Youtube here. And if any these conversations whet your appetite for more, then head over to our expansive archive of Free Philosophy Courses, and Free Philosophy eBooks.