Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls review – radical, unsettling, relevant

A superb new biography of the seer of Walden Pond reconsiders his reputation as tax-refuser, recluse, environmentalist and writer

In March 1845, Henry David Thoreau borrowed an axe and set off for Walden Pond, near his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was going to build a hut, and he knew exactly where: on a spot near the water, backed by a pine grove and fronted by smaller pines and a chestnut tree. Before stopping for his first lunch break, Thoreau had cut and trimmed enough of these pines to make the house’s main timbers.

Then he paid $4.28 to buy a shanty from a railroad worker who was moving on – the line had just been built past Walden Pond. Thoreau dismantled it and dried its planks in the sun to become the hut’s roof and sides. He laid a chimney foundation using cobblestones from the pond. When he ...

Ten reasons to be an existentialist

The existentialists asked the essential questions – and still have much to offer us today. So don your turtleneck and make like Sartre and De Beauvoir I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my granny on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It was the cover that attracted me, with its Dalí painting of a dripping watch and sickly green rock formation, plus a blurb describing it as “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being”. I didn’t know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation meant – although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I just guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who drifts around his provincial seaside town staring at tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at ...