Walden and Word Use

The many elegant graphs and charts provided by Voyant allow for a variety of questionably accurate inferences to be made regarding the structure of Walden and Thoreau’s worldview. In the interest of providing an analysis marginally further from the realm of conjecture, I am going to be focusing on one particular function: the graph that tracks the frequency of word usage.

The first word I looked at was “Pond”, which makes 201 appearances in Walden (“Ponds” makes another 24). If the graph is divided into 20 sections, there appear to be three significant spikes, one 55-60% of the way in, another smaller one 75% in, and another larger one 90% through. I predicted that these spikes would mark sections of the book mainly containing nature writing and descriptions, primarily of Walden Pond itself. Unsurprisingly, that is just the result I got. The first spike is in “The Ponds”, the second is at the end of “Brute Neighbors”, and the third is located in “The Pond in Winter” and at the start of “Spring”.

The second word examined by me was “Life”, with a solid 198 appearances, finishing just behind “Pond”. My prediction was that sections with heavy uses of the word “Life” would mainly consist of Thoreau’s musings on how to live, along with some social commentary. The graph for the word shows some large two-parted spikes, each with a low peak, a valley, and a higher peak shortly thereafter. The first two appear midway through the first half and on the boundary between the second and third, and the third (which is substantially smaller) appears closer to the end. There is also a final rise as the book draws to a close. Upon a quick skim of these sections, my guess seems pretty much correct. The first spike appears in Economy, with Thoreau speculating on the simple existence; the second in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”, where he gushes about returning to a slow-paced, natural mode of living; the third in “Baker Farm” and “Higher Laws”, in which he comments on the life of a poor farmer and his view of human nature, in that order; and the last in “Spring”, where he mostly is describing natural scenes, and the Conclusion, where he gives some closing advice on how to live.

Overall, tracking the parts of the book where certain words are heavily used seems like it might be a decent way of drawing some basic conclusions about the organization of the text. However, I’m not sure whether it reveals any deep insights; actually reading Walden seems like it might be the best means of gaining a thorough understanding of Walden (no pun intended).

My Revision Practices

Revision is a useful practice, but one of which I often make too much or too little use. When working on an assigned project, I usually take substantial time to sit and think without doing  much real work before embarking upon a frenzy of productivity when the deadline draws near. I then perform whatever revisions I have time for at the end. I am, if anything, worse when writing formal communications; I spend a lot of time deliberating over minor details and take days to produce a finished version where five minutes would have gotten me something almost as good. When writing for my own enjoyment I have few time limits, so I write as much I want, rewording it as I go, then take some time and look over it later to make corrections and improvements.

When writing something for a class, I tend to spend a lot of time pondering the specific and general aspects of the task (and also getting distracted and doing unrelated things). This step is followed by that of drafting up an outline that divides the assignment into smaller portions that I can develop individually. This helps to mitigate the apparent size of a composition project, which is important to me, since the main factor in my tendency to procrastinate is the magnitude of the undertaking. When I realize I am running low on time, I decide to finally begin work on the actual assignment, and produce a body of text that loosely follows the outline I laid out previously. If this is done and there is still time, I go over my work and make corrections, taking out redundant sections and clarifying where necessary.

I also spend some time writing short stories and material for RPGs. I don’t have a strict procedure for this kind of writing; when I have a good idea and feel the impulse to do something more than just jot it down, I spend whatever time I need creating the text, then make whatever changes are necessary to achieve satisfaction. I then take some time off and come back later to examine the writing with fresh eyes, which allows me to add helpful details and remove chunks of text that seemed necessary when I was writing it, but now appear redundant or confusing.

I take a different approach to personal or formal communications. If I am writing to someone I know well about a familiar subject, I will generally take a casual tone and write however I like with little care for minutiae. However, when sending letters or emails to people I don’t know that closely, or about more serious or formal topics, I tend to spend inordinate amounts of time overthinking fairly insignificant aspects of the dispatch, such as the best way to word a particular sentence, the appropriate titles with which to address the recipient, and so forth, which results in me spending far too much time and delaying responses that should have been immediate.

All things considered, I tend to perform too little revision in contexts that deserve more thought, and overuse it in those that merely require a quick response.

My Thoughts on Annotation

I have never had much inclination towards writing in the margins of physical texts. While I have occasionally found annotations helpful to my understanding of some written works, adding them in myself feels like damaging the book. If I find something interesting or inspirational in a passage that I’m reading, I typically write it down somewhere else at length rather than adding my commentary into the pages of the book itself. I have not been required to annotate books in previous classes, though I have received assignments to make notes on photocopied pages, which I find less objectionable.

When reading a book, the thought never occurs to me to start making notes off in the margins, let alone dogearing pages; it seems unnecessary and disrespectful of the materials, and it’s perfectly easy to leave a bookmark in a place you want to return to later. This attitude may have risen from my habits earlier in life, which were quite different from those I have now; as a kid, I tended to be incautious with books, often writing or drawing in them, breaking the spine when opening them, eating on them, and carrying them around into places where they would be likely to get damaged. I ended up causing the premature deterioration of a lot of books that I would rather have intact today, and I still regret it. (I understand that not everyone who makes annotations is careless with books, I’m just explaining the formation of my own attitude towards treating books with care.)

Footnotes have proven useful to me in the past, though mainly in the case of books written in a foreign and/or archaic language. Notes made by translators and interpreters over the years are useful when trying to understand something written in a time and place very different from our own. However, in most cases these have been selected from a wider set of commentaries by the publisher as the most likely to enhance the reader’s comprehension of the text, and are formatted in a way that isn’t too distracting from the main text.

When reading a text to which annotations have been added by hand, one of the things that bothers me most is when text is frequently highlighted or underlined, which makes it difficult to read without noticing the annotations. While this might come in handy when attempting to abbreviate longer writings with a more informative tone, it is needlessly distracting in most other works.

Annotations to digital texts are a different matter. Many digital formats allow readers to make comments in a manner that is unobtrusive, but easy to view to those who are interested. They have the additional advantage of allowing for responses to people’s remarks, both for the writer of the original text (if they’re around to clarify) and for other commentators.

In conclusion, while I generally don’t go in for marginalia, I won’t discourage it as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t distract from the work itself.