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Book Review: The Quotable Thoreau

The Quotable Thoreau
Collected and edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
552 pages. Princeton University Press, 2011. $20

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Jeffrey Cramer, notable Thoreau scholar and head of the Thoreau Institute, has been publishing some wonderful books for fans of Henry’s writing in recent years. In 2004 he published Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition, in 2007, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, and in 2009, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. All of these books take Thoreau’s texts and add annotations and explanations to help the reader better understand the little details.

Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.

Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)

While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.

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Book Review: Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition

Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry David Thoreau; Annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer
370 pages. Yale University Press, 2004. $30

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The time has come for another annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden, to replace the aging edition prepared by Thoreau scholar Walter G. Harding. Jeffery S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, has taken on this task, and after many years of work has published this densely annotated text of Walden.

Annotations cover all the areas one would expect: definitions of foreign words, references to people and places mentioned in the text, sources of quotes, even the date of a gentle rain mentioned in one part of the chapter entitled Solitude. Cramer occasionally compares passages in the text with Thoreau’s journal entries and other writings, offering insight into how Thoreau reworked some of his ideas. He is a voluble annotator – the book contains thousands of notes, with 427 for the first (and longest) chapter, Economy, alone. There are some pages where there is no body text at all, to allow for the multiple annotations, yet it is surprising at times to come across pages where he finds nothing to say.While I cannot judge the scholarly value of Cramer’s notes, they are certainly voluminous. If they do not cover all the details, I doubt that another edition with more notes will come along for some time. However, some of the notes make me question the usefulness of the way the notes are presented. For example, on page 81, Thoreau says, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a form or the county jail.” Cramer’s note says: “Thoreau was committed to the county jail in July 1846 for nonpayment of taxes.” Really? Do tell… Alas, there is no more about this (famous) incident in Thoreau’s life. Off to the index to see… When I look up jail, it does not refer me to page 81 (suggesting that the index is not quite up to par), but to pages 166 and 308. On the former, I find a better explanation of this incident. It would have been much more useful to find, on page 81, a reference to this note on page 166. Adding notes or references to other notes makes the overall text a bit more cumbrous, but oh so much more complete!

What is perhaps the most important aspect of this book for any die-hard Walden aficionado is its layout. Leaving aside the apocryphal illustrations that appear beneath each chapter title (animals, leaves and berries, even a steam locomotive), what counts most in a book like this is its readability. And the readability depends on the book’s layout. I must say that this is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The canonical text (Thoreau’s text) takes up just over half the total page width. It is presented in slim columns with a thin rule in the form of a box surrounding the text on both sides of a double-page spread. The font is attractive and very readable. At the margins of the canonical text is the annotations, in a smaller, sans serif font, which contrasts well with the main text and is equally readable.

Yet the layout is insufficient for one wishing to read Walden alone, and not focus on the annotations. In an ideal annotated edition of any text, the notes should be in the background enough so the reader can ignore them easily. Here, since the notes cover so much space, this is not possible. With the body text being as slim as it is, the notes look as though the cover half the page. And, with the gutter (the space between the text and the binding at the inside of the pages) being too small, you have to push the book flat to read it comfortably. If you simply let it sit flat on a desk on in your lap, it is difficult to read the words at the center of the book.

It is clearly the density of the annotations that led to this layout. But the publisher had a chance to make a book that was both useful (the annotations) and attractive (the layout); unfortunately, they chose the former. This edition, while fine for reading the notes, is not conducive to a casual, fire-side read of Walden. It is an excellent addition to the library of any Thoreauvian – I’d even say it is an essential book for anyone wishing to better understand Thoreau and Walden – but it is not the edition I would pick up to simply read a chapter or two of the work. (The recent edition by Shambhala, with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, or the paperback or hardcover Library of America editions, are perhaps best for casual reading.) Nevertheless, this is an invaluable work for a better understanding of this, one of the greatest texts of American literature.


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Henry David Thoreau and the Walden Mailing List


The Walden mailing list is dedicated to Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 to May 6, 1862). It is named after his best known work, Walden, a recounting of a period of time he spent living “deliberately” next to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, as well as an activist. As he wrote, in Walden,
“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.”

We offer the list as a place to discuss:

  • The pleasure that Thoreau’s writing provides us and the relevance of his ideas to life in the 21st Century.
  • Books about Thoreau’s life and works
  • Other authors from the period called The American Renaissance, particularly ones whose lives or literature moved Thoreau. (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc.)
  • Living deliberately
  • Nature writing and environmental concerns
  • A place to meet others who share your interest in the world of Henry David Thoreau.

Note: this list was initially created in 1996, and was housed on a server which has since disappeared. For that reason, the first five years of archives were lost. The list was moved to Yahoo.com in late 2001, and archives are available since that time.

To subscribe to this mailing list, go to the Walden List page at Yahoo Groups.

If you want a very good annotated version of Walden – arguably one of the finest books written in the English language – see this review.

Thoreau Links

The riverText café: Brian Thomas’ site, which notably houses If Monks had Macs
The Thoreau Society: Perhaps the best Thoreau site, with e-texts of almost all of his works, biographical info, scholarship, and lots more.
Henry David Thoreau online: a comprehensive site about Thoreau, with e-texts of many of his works
The Thoreau Reader: annotated works of Henry David Thoreau
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: definitive editions of Thoreau’s works
Ken Pedersen’s Walden CD: music inspired by Thoreau
Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson: my website dedicated to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading mind behind Transcendentalism

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Book Notes: Excursions, by Henry David Thoreau

Excursions
Henry David Thoreau
205 pages. Anthem Press, 2007. $23

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In 1863, shortly after Henry David Thoreau’s untimely death, his sister Sophia cobbled together a book of some of his shorter works, and called it Excursions. This collection of some of the author’s essays sold well, seeing several printings over the years to come. In fact, its sales outshone Thoreau’s other works, proving that only in death do some authors become popular. Popularity was, of course, relative, and this book was never a best-seller, though it remains a favorite because it contains some of Thoreau’s finest short works, such as the seminal essay Walking.

In a new edition in the Anthem Travel Classics series, Excursions appears here with its nine essays preceded by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Biographical Sketch, a brief text about Thoreau’s life by one of the people who knew him best. It also contains a brief introduction by Thoreau scholar Jeffrey S. Cramer, discussing the collection and Thoreau’s approach to this type of travel writing.

Thoreau was a writer who traveled much, and wrote about what he saw and nature around him. In these essays, he muses on walking, on wild apples, on the colors of leaves in autumn and more. In Walking, he says, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering…”, and goes on to express his philosophy of walking. Here in the French Alps, though I don’t walk as much as I would like, I cannot but recall Henry’s words when I set out, even for brief walks, surrounded by the view of summits meeting the sky. His words resonate even today, more than 150 years after they were written, and this is the case with all of his nature writing. You may not want to examine leaves and ponds as he did, but reading Thoreau’s words, you are transported to his time, to his mind, as he muses upon the mysteries and beauty of nature.

This book is fitting in a series of travel books, and its compact size makes it the ideal book to slip into your backpack when you go out for a saunter; or even when you go to take the subway and want to read something to take you elsewhere. It may be priced a bit steeply for such a book, but it is well produced, printed and bound, and will likely last through many voyages. For those who are unfamiliar with Thoreau’s writing, this book is the best way to discover his work, aside from reading Walden. And if you’ve read Walden, and not delved into these shorter works, there is no more excuse: for Walking alone, this book is worth the price.

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Henry David Thoreau: An American Original

Best known for his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau had little success as an author during his lifetime, but is now considered one of the emblematic writers of the American Renaissance of the mid-19th nineteenth century. Walden, a non-fiction account of his life in a hut by Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, remains one of the most original statements of American literature. Thoreau’s importance has far exceeded that of his friend, mentor, and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walden has become a cultural icon.The idea of living by a pond or lake is part of the American mythos. Millions of Americans go, each year, to spend vacations in wooden huts by lakes around the country, fishing, barbecuing, and enjoying life in the woods, as Thoreau did. Henry “went to the woods to live deliberately”; most of us only go for a short vacation, but on a starlit night, amidst the silence of the forest, you can feel what drew Thoreau to seek out the solace of solitude, and revel, if only for a moment, in the same peace and oneness with nature.

Thoreau would be called a Luddite, if he were around today. And many of his comments on advances ring true; he saw many advances as bringing little to the appreciation of real life. Would Thoreau use an iPod? Probably not. But his message is worth reflecting on, as we burden ourselves with ever-increasing numbers of gadgets and devices.

As Thoreau said in Walden:

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

But to better reflect on this, why not buy an audiobook version of Walden? Check out the iTunes Music Store, or Audible.com; there are several versions available: aAn abridged version, read by Archibald MacLeish, at just over one hour, gives you a taste of Thoreau through some of the best parts of the book. This version is only available from Audible.com. An unabridged version of Walden is available from both sources, and, at over 12 hours, will give you plenty of time to mull over Thoreau’s message. You can also download a free audiobook of Walden from Libribox; read by Librivox volunteer Gord Mackenzie, this version is excellent.

Or if you’d rather just read Walden, go to Gutenberg and download a copy to read on your computer, your iPod, or PDA. Or read it on-line, at the Thoreau Reader Or you could even go for one of those artifacts, called “books”, which require no batteries. You’ll find many editions of Walden in your local bookstore or library.

Here’s a link to several editions of Walden at Amazon.com.

PS: If you’re interested in Thoreau, why not join the Walden mailing list, a group of Thoreau fans who discuss his work and his ideas.

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