Thoreau, the Home, and the House

As a big fan of “close reading,” digging into the meat of words on a page, the idea of turning those words into numerical data through things like Voyant Tools doesn’t really float my boat. I like to try to figure out authorial intent a lot of the time, and while there is at least a faint possibility of finding that in close reading, I highly doubt that Thoreau was every considering how many times he used words like “pond.” All that considered, these kinds of tools could reveal a certain amount of subconscious meaning that proves interesting as a different kind of psychological, subliminal message. A prime example of this can be seen by looking at the top 75 words used in Walden:


For someone who so appreciates he concept of being “equally at home everywhere,” finding the necessities of a home to be minimal at most, Thoreau seems to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the small shelter he has made for himself. According to this word cloud, he uses the word “house” 197 times total throughout the entirely of Walden. This is third only behind words like “man,” which is unsurprising, given the occasionally pretentious and preacher tone that many consider Thoreau to carry throughout his writing. This kind of quantitative analysis tells me that subconsciously, Thoreau may be using the physical embodiment of a home, or his house, to anchor himself within the wilderness despite his ease of mind while wandering. Just as any other human, it occurs to me that Thoreau may be more linked to human comforts, such as a house, than he would like to admit to himself. This seems surprising given the sheer number of times he seems to have revised his work.

In keeping with this, another word that he uses frequently is the comparative word “like.” By looking at this word cloud, and the sentence within which this word is used, it appears that he uses it 301 times mostly for the sake of drawing parallels between the abstract ideas he creates and concrete images. For example, he likens his mind to a wheeling hawk in paragraph 6 of the Bean Field in Walden. This tells the distant reader that Thoreau tries to make sense of his spiritual and philosophical musings, for both the average reader and himself, by linking them to things he sees in nature that everyone can relate to on a physical level. As such, this correlates to his belief that understanding of a higher power comes through observing nature and embracing our animal and human connection with it. Given this evidence, it seems as though a good deal of meaning can come not when one looks closer, but when they take a step back to the physical words in the first place.

Revision–The Literary Double Take

My ideal mindset on revision would be exactly what it sounds like: envisioning something for the umpteenth time since its initial creation, with a fresh set of eyes ready to see the flaws, or simply how that first vision has changed over time. To be frank, this is not how I actually look at this term when I see it day-to-day. When the words “Revision Due” or “Peer Editing Day” stare up at me from a class syllabus, my first thoughts are usually pretty negative. I am a list maker by nature: the idea of finishing a project, and being able to obliterate it from my endless list of to-do’s, provides a rush the likes of which would make a drug addict swoon. The finality of handing in a job well done, and knowing I don’t have to touch it again, gives me leave to relax for a minute before moving on to the next thing I have to do. The idea of having to absorb feedback, and keep chipping away at something I was so glad to be done with, always makes me feel exhausted like some literary Sisyphus whose work is never done.

If my calendar were not such a looming presence, I am certain the concept of revision would be aligned with my initial, idealistic version. I am reminded of a phrase coined by my 10th-grade English teacher, which kept sentinel over unimpressed and fearful sophomores on the blackboard every day: “We are made to think deeply, and hard work is the reward.” While daunting, this idea of thinking and working as an enjoyable, lifelong activity is incredibly exciting. It makes every day, and every work produced, seem thrillingly impermanent and imperfect, showcasing that people and the pieces they produce are always waiting to be improved and altered by future thinkers and their dialogue. This inner drive toward perfection within myself and all humans certainly shows in writings as mundane as Facebook posts, where I aspire to sound as effortlessly witty and earnest as possible to friends, family, and the public.

It strikes me that revision really is a balancing act. You are exhausted by the thought of never stopping the process of work, but excited to see where it leads. You are required to be humble enough to take critique and change work you have already become attached to, yet vain enough to think you can make it better. You relish the thought of never having to set your eyes on a piece of writing again: yet, simultaneously, the yearning to see what that fresh set of eyes will reveal beckons, and you become certain that the only way worth looking at anything is, truly, through re-vision.

Some Marginal Thoughts on Annotation (Leah Christman)

I have never annotated. At the very least, I have never done it without being forced to do so; whether it be marking up a Xerox-copied installment of Great Expectations upon which a grade relies, or tediously pouring over a tired edition of Morrison’s Song of Solomon to mark motifs in AP English, this practice has always been something to dread.

For someone who regularly wishes to shut their brain off due to the constant and exhausting mass of whirling thoughts, this might seem odd. Is annotation not supposed to act as a release for the overwhelmed mind? A means of putting thoughts and responses down on paper, for the sake of perceived dialogue between the author, the self, or some future person? While I can see the idea posed in these queries, to me, annotating has always seemed an extra, unnecessary step. The author writes a work so their thoughts may be absorbed by another mind. I read, react (sometimes visibly), mull it over for moments, days, or weeks, and wait for the opportunity to discuss with someone in real time. In fact, I often beg my friends to read things with me, so that I may talk with them about it, teasing out mysteries and sharing reactions together. In-the-moment, face-to-face dialogue is that which is most cathartic to me: seeing and hearing how others react to thoughts of other people, and observing how that influences their own world view, provides the biggest thrill.

To put my thoughts in margins is, in my eyes, to marginalize them. What I want is to take my thoughts, that have been influenced by the insights of an author, and turn them into something new through others and the practices they themselves adopt through their world outlook. This seems far more effective, and meaningful, to the legacy of the author’s thoughts, and those thoughts of future, readers, than a few physical scribbles pushed to the side of text on a page.

To put these thoughts digitally seems to have even less meaning. Sure, it opens up more space for more ideas, which may change a future reader’s perception of a text. But it almost seems like interrupting an author right in the middle of a point: to say instead, “Wait! Hold everything. Readers must hear what I think before they proceed with this author and make up their own mind”. The impatience implied here is a bit frustrating, as it gives no one time to process anything in the way it is supposed to be processed, disrupting my own mental flow and that of others. Discussing in real time gives thoughts room to breathe, as well as an increased ability to make a change in some way.

These, of course, are only my opinions. Having no right to judge the practices of others, I am willing to be swayed. After all, the whole point of reading and having a dialogue is to open one’s mind. As such, I am open to having a change of heart regarding the realm of annotation.