Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thoreau vs Jobs (Or Why Thoreau would prefer a Kindle)

This man traded in his iPhone for a flip-phone after reading Walden.

These passages from Sam Graham-Felsen's article capture something about our times. After giving up the smart phone, he says:

It feels a little like getting a new contact lens prescription: Things that were blurred together feel sharper and more distinctly colored. And of course, I’m no longer engaged in half-conversations with the people in front of me and half-conversations with the Internet.


When I had an iPhone, the Internet was no longer a destination; it was on me every day, like a piece of clothing I put on first thing in the morning. When I get tempted to return to that life, I ask myself: Do I really want the Internet to be something I feel naked without?

He does admit to certain inconveniences. For example, he found it hard to travel without immediate access to maps, airline information, and hotel and restaurant locations. He did, however, still have a cell phone, and one with text messaging. It's not like he was retreating to a cave.

This raises an important point about Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which is emphatically not a book about withdrawing from society and surviving on roots and primitive wit. Graham-Felsen mentions this absurd stereotype of Thoreau. Indeed, it's fashionable now to declare Thoreau a fraud because his mother brought him jelly sandwiches (she did) and he only lived two miles from town (people walked past all the time).

It's as if we've watched too much Survivor and have reinvented Thoreau's project in light of some ridiculous game show mentality. ("Henry, I'm sorry, but you're off the island because you went into town to give a lecture on civil disobedience. That is against the rules!")

As Thoreau makes clear throughout Walden, his mission was to look at ALL of life in a stripped-down manner, to see the essential aspects of everything. He is not James Frey. He never hid the fact that he entertained visitors, often strolled into town, met fishermen and hunters. He lived close to a railroad track and not all that far from other rural inhabitants. He wrote openly about all of those things. Thoreau wasn't shirking community. He wanted a more simplified community, so he could look at its bare essence and see what it was all about. This is still certainly a Romantic approach, but it's a far cry from Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.

This is why I think Thoreau would have been a blogger. It seems obvious to me. He would have hated Twitter, no doubt, with its second-by-second updating and pop-culture glitz. But he would have blogged, probably once a week at the public library on his trip into town. These would be long, ponderous posts with few, if any, hyperlinks. In many ways, his Walden Pond journals are prototypical blogs.

But no smart phone. Not at Walden Pond. Maybe a Kindle. He only took one book with him to Walden Pond, the timeless Bhagavad Gita, and I suspect the Kindle would allow him to have multiple books to read without taking up more space.

1 comment:

  1. I have shared the idea about Thoreau having a Kindle instead of a smart phone a few times this week!