“Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”
All but a tiny minority of writers are little known and poorly paid — and this was certainly true of Henry during his lifetime. But it can be said that while kings and presidents come and go, in the long run it is ideas that change the world… and books are an efficient vehicle for ideas.
But can’t you hear a bit of self-congratulation here? OK, we writers may be broke and unknown, but never mind that — we’re a natural and irresistible aristocracy!
On the other hand, what’s the point of writing at all unless you think you can change the world just a little bit, even by giving one other person a good idea they hadn’t thought of before?
We begin, and Thoreau tells a little about why he’s writing this book:
“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.” — from “Economy,” Walden Continue reading →
Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau’s sister Sophia. Via Wikipedia
One should not read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden quickly. It’s a book that benefits from a leisurely pace. This book can change how you look at the world and improve your enjoyment of life. Even if you live in a city and like modern technology, as I do.
That’s why for the next year I’m going to blog about Walden — quoting it, commenting on it, amplifying and arguing with it. It’s like a book club that meets four days a week (new posts on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), but the readings are mostly a good deal shorter than this post — just a few minutes out of your day. And though I hope you’ll read the book for yourself, you don’t have to do so to follow these posts. I’ll quote as much as I need to for the post to make sense.
Just remember: Walden isn’t something to finish and check off your list. It’s something live with, a companion. I can think of very few books that stand up to that kind of use, but this is one. Continue reading →
Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.
I read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.
Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”
Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new books. People in the Canadian Arctic long ago nicknamed him “Hardly Know It,” but others consider him a national treasure whose artistic license serves a higher purpose of raising environmental awareness and lampooning human arrogance.
At Brain Pickings, one of my favorite blogs, Maria Popova has an excellent post about Anne Lamott’s advice from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
Popova, summarizing Lamott, says that in writing,
“there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, ‘Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.’, and David Foster Wallace admonished, ‘If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.’) Lamott cautions: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.’” Continue reading →
I came across the Wikipedia page of writer Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) and thought he sounded so interesting that I read some of his work, including his best-known book, Trout Fishing in America.
Do I think he’s a good writer? It’s not a simple answer. At times I felt intrigued by his work; at times I felt like it was a bit of a put-on, like he was being bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. And that’s what this post is about: a highly-original writer whose work doesn’t fit the standard genres or criteria, who has a devoted following among some readers and who is considered little more than an artifact of Sixties counterculture by others. Continue reading →