Happy birthday, Walden.
Today in 1854, Henry David Thoreau released his nuanced and readable account of two years that he spent largely alone in a cabin near Concord, Massachusetts.
"His distillation of two years living in relative seclusion offers deep insights not just into the natural world and humanity's place in it, but how that relationship was being impacted -- and degraded -- by the Industrial Revolution," Wired's Randy Alfred reminds us. "It remains to this day a trenchant criticism of the excesses of technology,"
Walden is a fantastically good book, and Thoreau's unadorned style feels shockingly contemporary, even if his analysis of networks differs from our own. "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," he wrote. And in one of the most famous and beautiful passages from the book, we read:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man.... The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.
Looking back at Thoreau, though, it's important to realize that he was as out of sync with his own times as he sometimes seems with ours. He's part of a long-standing American counterculture, the one that wonders whether all of our irritable striving to build and buy things is worth the bother.