The Book That Changed My Life

Milton Meltzer

Milton Meltzer was a five-time Finalist for Children's Literature. His short-listed books include Langston Hughes, 1969; Remember the Days, 1975; World of Our Fathers, 1975; Never Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, 1977; and All Time, All Peoples: A World History of Slavery, 1981.

It was my high school teacher, Anna Shaughnessy, who introduced me to Henry David Thoreau. His Walden was not part of the course of study. (It still isn't, in most schools.) She asked whether I knew of this Massachusetts writer who'd lived only some 40 miles away, in Concord. I didn't. Without scaring me off by proclaiming how great he was, she said he had lived and died in obscurity. But not like some romantic poet in a dusty garret. He had done all kinds of work for a living-been a schoolteacher, surveyor, pencil-maker, gardener, carpenter, mason, lecturer, naturalist, as well as keeper of a personal journal into which he wrote two million words.

"Thoreau was born in 1817, about a hundred years before you," Miss Shaughnessey said. "But I think, when you read him, you'll find his ideas, his way of looking at life, will mean as much to you as if he were born yesterday."

So I started on a copy of Walden that I borrowed from her. I found it hard going at first. But soon her drew me deep into his story of his adventure living in his cabin at Walden Pond. His book has the rhythm and flow of the changing seasons. And out of that pattern came his central symbol-rebirth and renewal, not only of the world around us, but of our own inner development.

Many years after my first encounter with Thoreau, when I was deeply troubled by the course my life was taking , I went back to Walden once more. On the last page I read this passage:

'Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts-from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has gradually been converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb-heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat around the festive board-may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its summer life at last!'

As I finished reading those lines, I began to sob. The image of a bug emerging into life after all those years in its wooden tomb, touched something deep in me. The tears poured out in relief. Feelings that had been frozen so long, melted in a rush. My wife, who had come running at the sound of crying, looked at me in amazement, then put her arms around me. I felt like one reborn...

Milton Meltzer