Author: Nicole Callahan

Thoreau: Lover or Hater

Over the course of reading Walden, it becomes very easy to see Thoreau as a man preoccupied with what he dislikes. It’s easy to point out his objections to modern living, to excess, too many other things he finds trivial. It’s much harder to find what Thoreau is genuinely positive towards. Clearly, he likes something about his life on Walden Pond, you can see it in the text. But normally people don’t find their heart’s desire in farming beans, they just farm beans. What is it that truly lights up Thoreau’s life. Beneath all the philosophy, what does he love? Is that love more of a driving factor than his hatred for other things?

Using Voyant-tools I found something that surprised me. Plugging in “love,” “hate,” “enjoy,” and “dislike” you see a very clear trend. Love, in some form or another, is used 55 times throughout Walden, compared to a staggering one usage of the word hate. Enjoy in some form is utilized 22 times, whereas dislike does not appear at all. Obviously, context would affect the understanding of these words in action but I find it very intriguing that, at least in language, Thoreau is far more positive than he is negative.

Obviously, Thoreau focuses a lot on his lived philosophy, but I enjoy seeing more obvious correlations with all of the ideals removed. The connection between “love” and “nature” seemed right to me, but I was surprised to see “love” and “talk” connect. Perhaps, despite his more solitary lifestyle, his career as a writer does suggest an element of enjoying communicating. Going in to find some context for this, it seemed obvious that a man who kept up so many letter correspondences, a journal, and frequently entertained house guests loved to talk but it does seem to get lost amongst the miasma of philosophy.

This discovery brought me to my overwhelming question, is Thoreau somebody who defines himself by what he is against or what he is for. In looking at the context in which love is used, I found a passage where Thoreau qualifies his stance on his brand of philosophy. He insists that he is not speaking down on those who are content in life in the modern world, but rather towards those unhappy with their lot in life. He even goes so far as to say that he is not discrediting “those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers— and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number;” Thoreau calls himself a lover of life. That’s not something you think you’d hear from a man who swore off coffee.

I don’t know if the positive language use, or the occasional swearing he is not as cranky and filled with hate as he appears actually outweigh the tone of the work for the better. But I do find it comforting to see signs that his life was motivated to some degree by the same things as others: rather than defining himself by his “against” positions, Thoreau does seem to find what he enjoys and is in favor of.

Reduce, Revise, and Recycle

Revision is something I struggle with. I find I have vastly different approaches to revision depending on the type of writing I’m doing, as well as vastly different areas of success.

Part of my problem with the idea of revision is that I am an over-planner when it comes to writing. Not always, of course. When I used to be in time constrained situations for writing essays, I could just jump out the gate with nary a plan in my back pocket and it always seemed to magically come together. But when left to my own devices, I tend to not write until I have a clear path as to where I’m going. That’s the way I write everything, from essays to creative works to emails. Instead of revising later I tend to just think think think until I have something to put down. I find this makes the revision process shorter because I already made revisions in my mind before actually putting anything down on paper.

After everything is written, if I am not mentally exhausted with the work and if I have time, I will go back and edit. The easiest revision for me is getting rid of things. I suffer from overwriting, so I often find myself crossing out superfluous language or entire sentences that are just restated thoughts from a previous sentence. Accidental repetitiveness the one thing that my over planning, all in one shot strategy of writing adds to.

The harder revision is when you have to restructure an entire argument. Sometimes after writing, you realize all the ideas are there but they’re not presented in a way that flows and develops your argument well. Normally I make a copy of the paper and chop it up so that I can compare the two after the restructuring and still be able to return to the original in case the new structure is worse.

The only type of revision I am truly terrible at is grammar revision. I can stare at a paper forward, backward, and sideways and still miss a grammar mistake that will only become painfully clear after I have handed in the paper. I agonize over professional emails because I know that somehow I will make an error that will ruin the serious nature of the correspondence. For an example of my incompetence: I once tweeted that anyone who treated a dog poorly was a “peace of garbage” and only noticed three months later that I had used the wrong word. I don’t know how that happened.

Normally with school work, I accept that revisions can only be done so many times. With creative works, I find myself constantly fixing the things I’ve written, sometimes completely changing their original meaning, sometimes recycling one line in a completely different piece of writing. Unlike with school where a deadline and a grade often feels like a closing note on how good something I’ve written can be, I find myself making revisions to my creative pieces years after I thought I had left them in a google doc to rust.

Just My Thoughts

When I was a kid, I despised the idea of writing in books. I had a strong sense of the value of a physical book and thought that writing in them desecrated their intended purpose. I never thought about what valuable things you could put in the blank space in a novel because my experience stemmed from whatever mess elementary school kids added to their library books. I equated writing in a book to basically the same thing as spilling a drink or rubbing cheeto-stained fingers on it. I think I only ever wrote something in one of my books and I felt extremely guilty.

When reading works in high school I had no problem marking up the print of a poem. I understood that that was just a piece of paper. I circled keywords, I boxed keywords, and I underlined catching parts. I just never touched books. I remember my grades outrage when our tenth grade English teacher asked us to use post-its to mark up our thoughts. She treated it very strictly so I understood why people were upset. She was definitely looking for quantity to prove something over quality. I always had a lot of post-its and I appreciated that the post-its meant I didn’t have to ruin the beautiful, sacred books.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I started to critically examine the idea that a physical book wasn’t something you should mark up. I was always also really affronted when I saw those cool pieces of art made by carving up old books. I expressed this idea to a friend and she pointed out that the actual physical book didn’t really matter so much as the words in it, and those could always be reproduced. The value of a book was unscathed by using it to create something new like a sculpture.

I also started annotating without the strict requirement of the teacher later on. I used to be annoyed about the post-its because I thought I would remember all my thoughts about a book, and when I realized that was not true I wanted the mark up my work. I bought my own post-its, color-coded to denote specific themes that I usually cemented as I went along. Each post-it was pretty big so I normally divided them in half before jotting something quick down on the post-it. This was really where I developed my commentary style. I was reading a book I really hated in senior year, and I felt this gave me free license to talk trash. The main character was so painfully obnoxious that I would put down post-its just to call him out on his conceited, hyper-intellectual behavior. Eventually, it got to the point where I was cursing him out, and speaking directly to the author, and wondering how much of the protagonist’s personality was fiction and how much was him. The book was The World According to Garp, by the way.

Now that I mostly own the works I’m reading, I feel at liberty to mark them up according to my will. I still use color-coded post-its to denote themes in a work, but now they’re the tiny translucent ones and I just write my brief thoughts in the margin. I am still hugely inconsistent about what my markings mean. Some words I circle, some words I box, some lines I underline in a straight line, some lines I underline with a squiggly line. Generally, if I notice a word repeated that I feel is significant or two different words with the same feeling I will draw a line directly connecting them. My comments in the margin remain really informal. Sometimes I yell at the main character, sometimes I just write “haha” after a good joke. Sometimes I write really small and try to fit in an actually smart reaction I had to the work.

No matter what though, this lets the text becomes a live conversation between me and the author, which is gratifying and fun to look back at. It’s nice to believe that a work is not finished until you’ve read it and value your own thoughts on the matter in the same way you value the text.