Author: Harris Schwab

More on “Deliberately”

Immediately upon seeing Walden in Voyant Tools, the context tool in the bottom right corner caught my eye. The tool is interesting; it allows one to input a certain word and outputs all occurrences of the word in the text, giving the context surrounding the word the as well. By default, the word “like” is used. I thought it would be more intriguing to take a look at one of Thoreau’s dearest words: “deliberately.”

What does it mean to live deliberately? Can men live deliberately? If so, how? These were questions I had even before exploring Voyant Tools. After seeing the context tool, I thought it offered a unique way to (begin to) answer these questions.

As we have discussed before, part of living deliberately means carefully choosing what to observe, what to do, etc. Essentially, it means being conscious about yourself, the things around you, and the intersection between the two; being closer to nature. After seeing “deliberately” in the context tool, I discovered a different, almost paradoxical, meaning of the word. To Thoreau, the deliberation of man and the deliberation of nature- although connected- are different. Thoreau seems to believe that animals and nature are inherently deliberate- they don’t have to deliberately try to be deliberate. Bear with me here.

Thoreau uses “deliberately” nine times in Walden. In seven of these, Thoreau uses the word in the context of the actions of man. For the other two, the context is of nature itself. The fifth occurrence of the word reads: “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature” (Where I Lived, And What I Lived For, paragraph 22). The seventh occurrence reads: “He uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls” (Brute Neighbors, paragraph 17). Nature in itself is deliberate; and man must therefore learn this deliberation from nature (first quote). The beast’s howl is deliberate merely because the animal is a part of nature- the beast need not to put effort into deliberation (second quote).

For most of the seven other uses of the word (regarding the actions of man), Thoreau suggests that man must act deliberately so as to become closer to nature. For example, the second use of the word reads: “It would be worth the while still to build more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even” (Economy, paragraph 66). Thoreau says he should have built his house more deliberately. But, this isn’t how we normally think of the word- he doesn’t mean that he should have added more time or detail, he means that he should have put in less time and taken out structures, so that his house was more natural. A very similar quote is the eighth occurrence of the word, which reads: “Indeed, I worked so deliberately, that though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks raised a few inches above the floor served for my pillow at night; yet I did not get a stiff neck” (House-Warming, paragraph 5).  Here, Thoreau did work deliberately; meaning he was brought closer to nature, sleeping on the ground without luxuries like a pillow. And, finally, our old friend “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” (Where I Lived, And What I Lived For, paragraph 16). Being deliberate means being close to nature, and vice versa, because nature itself is deliberate.

For man, deliberation is not innate. Man must consciously try be deliberate (a bit redundant, I know) to be closer to nature. Nature is intrinsically deliberate, and therefore to be more like nature man must act closely to nature– act with deliberation. I think this analysis was a combination of distant and close reading, so I’m not sure how much a close reading a Walden will help to further answer these questions. However, comparing Walden to other texts of Thoreau’s where he discusses deliberation could be very useful to see just what Thoreau means when he says “living deliberately.”

Keyboard Warriors

Revision is a staple of my writing. Not only is it advantageous, but also necessary. From academic work to leisurely texts and tweets, revision has many purposes.

First, revision ensures that I say what I actually intend to say. Spell check is usually good with correcting rudimentary spelling errors but has limitations. For example, homonyms typically fly under the radar of spell check and need a manual fix.

Secondly, revision makes me not sound stupid. When going over a piece of writing, sometimes I find that a certain word appears way too frequently, and replacing some with synonyms keeps the writing fresh and sophisticated. Sure, it may make the writing sound a little pretentious at times, but refined work and pretentiousness often go hand in hand.

Thirdly, revision keeps me honest. This is usually for texts or social media posts but is sometimes helpful in academic writing as well. Usually, this aspect comes in the form of a question: “Should I actually say what I’m about to say?” I like charged writing; it is the only enjoyable form of writing in my opinion. Saying bland or pointless things just to say them or to meet a requirement for a paper is boring, and will usually result in weaker writing by me. When I actually care about what I’m saying, the words seem to flow out easily and writing is genuinely enjoyable. However, charged writing by nature means some people will disagree with my beliefs. And, when it comes to social media, contentious messages are highly dangerous. Often, it’s better to leave these thoughts in your head than to be attacked by virtual “keyboard warriors,” which brings up another helpful question: “Is saying what I’m about to say worth it?” This is also useful for academic purposes; if my teacher differs from me with regards to political philosophies, it’s probably better for our relationship- and my grade- to stay away from controversial thoughts and language.

When I have academic writing to do, I typically begin by writing down very broad topics to discuss, starting with general introductory notes, then body paragraph ideas, then a general conclusion. Next, I sit back and let ideas come to me, stirring different thoughts in my head. Finally, I start writing each section individually under the broad topics, starting with the introduction. After finishing each paragraph, I read it over again (usually many times), making edits and increasing the flow. After the entire piece is completed, I read through it wholly, again making edits as I go. (All of this is done on a computer; I very seldomly- effectively never- draft on paper). This is a tedious and time-consuming process, but it is the best way I have found to ensure that I produce the highest quality writing I can.

In sum, I revise virtually everything I write. Both informal and formal writing need some level of revision to make sure I’m saying what I intend to, to help me sound intelligent, and to determine if I actually should say what I am about to say. Revision is essential in today’s world of nitpicky people.

Arrogance

I have never willingly written in a book. In high school, I spent many a free period arguing with English teachers about their childish requirements to write our “thoughts” and “feelings” about a text directly in the margins. I insisted that the same goal could be achieved by writing on a separate sheet of paper, while keeping the text squeaky-clean. Unfortunately, I would typically be forced to cave on behalf of my grade, with the final words of the teacher being “do it or else you won’t pass the assignment, because I said so.” But, my forced marginalia would be a reflection of my reluctancy- out of spite I would mock and dutifully criticize every line I could, my notes often filling the entire margins. Sometimes, I would write small enough so that on a page my marginalia contained more words than the text itself.

There is no good reason for marginalia. In fact, marginalia is bad. Let’s start with an analogy:

I’m in the Met. A certain painting strikes me in some way, and I want to express my opinion. To do this, I wouldn’t saunter on up to the painting and scribble on the white wall next to it. This would distract from the painting itself, as others could not see the work of art independent from my ugly scrawls. It also borders on vandalism. Sure, this isn’t quite the same as writing in a book, since books are mass-produced and owned by individuals, but the idea holds true. Whenever you write in a book, you take away from the original text because someone reading after you cannot block out your writing. There is a sort of purity in a clean book- a sort of truth. You see exactly what the author wanted you to see.

If you have a used book that you plan to return or pass on, the amount of arrogance or inconsideration (depending on intention) it takes to write marginalia is mind-boggling. If you think your writing adds something to the text that others after you should see, you are narcissistic. People read a book to read the book, not your writing. Frankly, no one cares what you have to say. I read Shakespeare to read Shakespeare, not some random note from some random guy pointing out that the way in which Shakespeare writes a line strikes him as “funny.” If you are simply writing notes without much thought as to who else will have the book after you, you are insensitive. Marginalia is disrespectful to people who read a text after you.

Marginalia is also disrespectful to the author. The author put out a work exactly how he wanted others to see it. Do you know how much time it takes to write a book? The effort it takes to make every line as good as you can? A book is a work of art like that painting in the Met. You wouldn’t taint the painting by writing next to it, so why do so many people taint books?

Marginalia is vandalism.

 

Some ‘side notes’…

For a book that is solely yours and will never be read by anyone else, knock yourself out with marginalia. In my opinion, you’ll only clutter things up more (both in the text and in your mind), but I’m in no position to stop you. However, if there is any chance whatsoever of someone reading the book after you, you should not write marginalia.

Highlighting, unlike marginalia, has its place in used/public books as well as personal books. It is a great way to condense textbooks and other scholarly texts, and can often help others. In a typical used book such as a novel, however, highlighting is not appropriate for reasons similar to marginalia; it is distracting, and no one else cares what you found interesting enough to highlight.

Digital marginalia that can appear by clicking a button is a great idea. This maintains the original text, keeps from distraction, and if someone doesn’t want to see your annotations, they just don’t press the button.

 

If you’re wondering whether or not you should write something in the margins of a book- just don’t.