Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.

Book Review: An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Author: Kay Redfield Jamison

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Psychology

First Published: 1995

 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, the medical world has made significant progress in finding effective diagnostic and treatment procedures for Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as Manic Depression. The onset of social media has also contributed greatly in disseminating information and dispelling biases against the disorder. And yet, while we are seeing change in the public’s attitude towards the illness, there are just a handful of autobiographical accounts that tackle both the personal and medical effects of the illness as brilliantly as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

Written in the early 90s by Kay Redfield Jamison, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, An Unquiet Mind is an eye-opening memoir that effectively changes the way one views bipolar disorder. Now, one of the factors that make the book so compelling is how Jamison—one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder—pulls from her own experiences as a manic depressive to provide a holistic view of the illness. Bear in mind that this was written during a period wherein an admission such as this could have major personal and professional repercussions for a medical practitioner. Despite the confession’s possible effects on her personal life and career, Jamison decided that to make a difference in the lives of other manic depressives, she needed to speak up. She was also tired of hiding and having to feel as if she had something to hide. In her words:

 

“One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words is still exactly that, dishonest.”

It is with this fearless attitude that she lays bare her struggles against an illness that has brought some of the world’s brightest minds on or past the brink of suicide. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison paints a vivid picture of a life shaped and distorted by moods and madness. As a child, she was optimistic, driven, but also plagued by a mercurial temperament. Her first manic depressive episode in her late teens meant weeks of flying high only to burn out so quickly that it left her incapable of finding pleasure in anything.

“I counted upon my mind’s acuity, interest, and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind turned on me; it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or worthwhile.”

As Jamison grew older, her moods continued to worsen. Three months into her work as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she had become a raving psychotic. Initially, her manic episodes conferred terrific advantages—the need for little sleep had coupled with amazing productivity. But at the tail end of those manic moments were long bouts of depression that had her frequently contemplating suicide. Eventually, the lines between the two states of mind became blurred. These episodes became even more pronounced during the time she was battling her way into the male-dominated world of clinical psychology.

After a terrible bout of depression, a colleague managed to convince her to see a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook her to her very core.

“The endless questioning finally ended. My psychiatrist looked at me, there was no uncertainty in his voice. ‘Manic depressive illness.’ I admired his bluntness. I wished him locusts on his lands and a pox upon his house. Silent, unbelievable rage. I smiled pleasantly. He smiled back. The war had just begun.”

Indeed, the war wasn’t over for Jamison. She had been prescribed lithium—a life-saving drug that tempered her moods but also brought with it an unpleasant string of side effects. For a long time, she went on and off the drug intermittently. At one particularly bleak moment, she decided to kill herself. Her method of choice was overdosing on the drug that was meant to save her. She reveled in its irony. But help came on time, and over the years she realized that the pros of taking lithium greatly outweighed its admittedly many cons.

Ultimately, An Unquiet Mind is a lot more than just a ‘memoir of moods and madness.’ It is an illuminating piece that educates its readers about one of the most misunderstood mental disorders in the world. It’s also a success story, a light at the end of the tunnel for people struggling with bipolar disorder.

Written in incredibly magnetic and eloquent prose, this is a book that effectively pulls the reader in. At times, the emotions from the page became so palpable that it left me breathless. This is a book that has moved me to tears, the first, second, and third time I’ve read it. It has been an honor to have chanced upon this seminal work—and now it takes its place on my metaphorical shelf of literary greats.

Rating: A+++

Definitely a must-read and must-keep.

Thoughts on “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau

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Title: Economy (from Walden)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay, Philosophy, Memoir

First Published: 1854

 

Before starting the actual review, let me stress that this is just my thoughts on the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s acclaimed work, Walden. I find it necessary for us to have at least a brief overview of the main text; that way, we can have a fuller grasp of the reasonings behind the creation of this compelling piece of literature.

Now, Walden is essentially the byproduct of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘immersion’ in nature. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided to live apart from society and its stifling standards by erecting a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond—about two miles from his home. There, he sought to understand society and its workings by paring down life to its bare essentials. This act of ‘economizing’ life had tremendous impact on Thoreau and his views; and this shows, especially when the reader explores the philosophies introduced by the writer in this chapter.

These days, when we say economy, we often use it to refer to either the economic climate or conditions of a particular country or area, or to the prudent and efficient use of finite resources. In the chapter aptly titled: Economy, the reader is given both an accurate portrait of the economic mindset of early-to-mid nineteenth century America, and an extensive how-to on keeping one’s daily expenditures at the bare minimum.

Note that the previous paragraph reads: “an accurate portrait of an economic mindset,” and not an economic state. This is deliberate; because while Thoreau does touch on fiscal matters and household management, he focuses more on denouncing the notion of the common mode of living as being the only socially acceptable one. He recognizes the futility of laboring constantly to meet the living standards set by society; standards which are not so much suggested as they are levied on the common man’s head. This is a sentiment, which I still find relevant today. Let me qualify that statement by dissecting the text with you.

In Economy, Thoreau uses very strong pronouncements such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… but it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things (p.11),” and “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines or rather indicates his fate (p.10),” to illustrate what he thinks of man’s reasons for his laboring. Thoreau believes that man has begun to live according to lofty standards dictated, not by his personal nature, but by an external force which one can only surmise as the “popular opinion” of a society geared towards consumerist living. The following excerpt sums up the essence of the author’s beliefs regarding this particular mindset:

“When we consider what, to use the words of catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (p.11)”

Thoreau urges the reader to reconsider this popular “meaning of life” by recognizing that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” further stating that “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor (p.15).”

He explains these statements by pointing out that man, like most other animals, need only fuel, heat, and shelter to survive. To attain fuel, man eats—but he does not stop at eating to nourish, he feasts to taste. To retain heat, man covers himself with clothes—but he doesn’t wear clothes just to stay warm. He must wear the latest fashion, to rise in the esteem of his peers. And lastly, he doesn’t settle for whatever shelter can protect him from the elements, he must decorate his home, lest it be deemed unacceptable by his neighbors.

Now, let us explore each category, for I fear I do Thoreau no justice with such elementary summations. [My personal thoughts contained in brackets.]

On Fashion:

“No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. (p.21)”

Though the statement may appear harsh, it must be understood that Thoreau’s views on fashion stemmed from his own experiences of having been prematurely judged based on his clothing or appearance. In Economy, he shared one such experience. While being measured for a new coat, Thoreau mused: “Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang a coat on?”

He offers the notion of freeing oneself from the pressures of fashion, to enjoy a certain liberty, as is enjoyed by “a man clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark…that if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (p.23)

[Though this particular idea may seem extreme, it’s one that I feel quite strongly about. For how many of us have been judged unfairly by our appearance or outwardly garb?  Being a woman of a particular color and stature, I cannot count how many times I have been subject to once-overs or been given a different brand of service inside certain establishments. While vanity has always been a shortcoming of mine, I have always believed in personal choice and personal style. I have always believed that if a man was to be judged, it would be according to his character, not his costume.]

 

On Shelter:

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. (p.30)”

In discussing the topic of shelter, Thoreau does not deny the necessity of having one, though he does make a case about how man has opted to rent “a larger and more luxurious box, (p.27)” when one of a simpler nature would suffice—such as the wigwams occupied by the Native Americans. The chapter discusses how the dwelling of the chief of a village offers little disparity when compared to the wigwams of his tribesmen; while in a ‘more civilized nation,’ less than half of the population can afford to own homes. People opt to pay annual tax to rent these luxurious boxes, ‘which would buy a village of wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. (p.28)”

He further illustrates this point through a poignant example of how a farmer tries to make a living using a “formula more complicated than the problem itself (p.30).” He speaks of how the farmer uses his skills ‘to catch comfort and independence,’ not knowing that he himself has been caught in his own trap.  Man thinks that by obtaining luxuries he can attain freedom from a life of strife, and yet he spends his entire life working hard to maintain what luxuries he’s got .As Thoreau puts it, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. (p.30)”

 

On the Perpetual State of Discontent:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have… Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? (p.32)”

In man’s pursuit for something greater, “Men have become the tools of their tools. (p.33)” That is the truth that Thoreau preaches throughout Economy. Man’s constant state of discontent propels him into action—but it is that very action that keeps him in a rat race that can only be broken by a change in perception. This feeling of dissatisfaction and the limitations it produces extends beyond the citizen’s private life.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. (p.48)”

 

On the Practice of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. (p.63)”

Thoreau offers an unconventional and somewhat unpopular view on the idea of charity. With staggering declarations like “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. (p.60),” and “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. (p.61),” it is easy to misconstrue what the writer is trying to say. While he expressly states that philanthropy is an exercise that is not for him, he also explains that he would not stand in the way of genuine charity. He only asks that the intentions be pure and that the acts of charity be true. He believes that goodness should not be transitory or incomplete, rather, that the do-gooder would also spend himself alongside his money and would persevere even after public or private discouragements.

 

Verdict: All in all, Economy is a solid introduction to an extremely powerful piece of literary history. The persuasive and sound nature of Henry David Thoreau’s arguments guarantees his place as one of the greatest American writers and philosophers of all time.