A New Edition of Walden, Beautifully Designed

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is my touchstone. It’s the book that contains the most truth about how to live in this world. I re-read Walden regularly, and I use Thoreau’s lessons to help me maintain a level of simplicity in this turbulent world.

There are many editions of Walden available, from the Library of America’s excellent editions in paperback (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and in hardcover, with two other works by Thoreau (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to scholar Jeffrey Cramer’s annotated Walden (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). And you can download a free copy of very attractively designed ebook edition of Walden – and of Thoreau’s other major works – from Ron Koster’s website, or from Apple’s iBooks Store.

Designer Matt Steel wants to make a new Walden. Initially, Steel had a somewhat misguided idea of “adapting” the text, translating Thoreau’s less easily understood words and phrases to “help” modern readers understand the text. But after a number of people explained why this was unnecessary, Steel decided that this was the wrong way to proceed.

This campaign has changed from its original scope. Based on community feedback and our own reflections on how to help Walden remain contemporary, we have decided to forego the adaptation, and instead publish a new hardcover edition of Walden with the original text and annotations tailored for today’s reader.

(Personally, I wouldn’t have ordered the book if it was an adaptation. It’s worth reading Steel’s post on Medium, where he discusses why he changed his mind. Kudos to him for listening to what others had to say. )

The New Walden will be a beautifully designed book, with great attention paid to the typography and layout. In addition, it will contain notes in the margins: “Archaic words and idioms are defined throughout, and historical or cultural references are made clear.”

Walden1

The book will feature illustrations and some quotes will be called out.

Walden2

This isn’t a cheap book, and, as such, Steel is funding this project on Kickstarter. Currently, the minimum cost of a copy of this book is $48 (plus shipping). If you’re a fan of Thoreau, you’ll probably want an edition like this; it’s always nicer to read great books in attractive editions. If you don’t know Walden yet, then I strongly suggest you go out and read it now, and you, too, may decide that you want an attractive copy of the book for your library.

Ali Goes to Concord

Back in 1996, I created the Walden mailing list, to discuss what is, for me, one of the most important books written by an American. Long a touchstone for me, Walden is a clear explanation of how one can live a deliberate life.

In 2006, Alireza Taghdarreh joined the Walden mailing list. This Iranian man had taught himself English, and had decided that he simply had to translate Walden into Farsi, the language of his country. Making parallels with the mystical poetry of Rumi, Ali asked questions and made observations about Walden, which helped him, and the rest of the members of the list, better understand this book.

Over the years, Ali worked tirelessly at his translation. He finally achieved the work, and found someone who set up a publishing company to publish Walden in Farsi, as well as, in the future, other writings by Thoreau, Emerson, and others.

Ali has had a great deal of help over the years from Thoreau scholars in the United States. They have sent him books, answered his questions, and invited him to address the annual meeting of the Thoreau Society in Concord.

And he has done so. James Fallows, of The Atlantic, was present at the meeting, and he has published an article on the Atlantic website, An Iranian Scholar Speaks About Thoreau, at Walden Pond. The article includes a video of Ali making a talk to the meeting.

Ali in Concord
Don Henley and Alireza Taghdarreh at Walden. Photo: Matt Burne.

I bow down in reverence to Ali Taghdarreh, who has dedicated so much of his time to the translation of a book that crosses boundaries and frontiers. His devotion to the work is impressive, and he plans to continue translating Thoreau, and is just starting to tackle Emerson as well.

Ali, congratulations. I wish I could have been there to meet you in person.

Book Review: The Quotable Thoreau

The Quotable Thoreau
Collected and edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
552 pages. Princeton University Press, 2011. $20

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

Jeffrey Cramer, notable Thoreau scholar and head of the Thoreau Institute, has been publishing some wonderful books for fans of Henry’s writing in recent years. In 2004 he published Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition, in 2007, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, and in 2009, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. All of these books take Thoreau’s texts and add annotations and explanations to help the reader better understand the little details.

Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.

Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)

While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.

If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.

Book Review: Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition

Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry David Thoreau; Annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer
370 pages. Yale University Press, 2004. $30

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

The time has come for another annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden, to replace the aging edition prepared by Thoreau scholar Walter G. Harding. Jeffery S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, has taken on this task, and after many years of work has published this densely annotated text of Walden.

Annotations cover all the areas one would expect: definitions of foreign words, references to people and places mentioned in the text, sources of quotes, even the date of a gentle rain mentioned in one part of the chapter entitled Solitude. Cramer occasionally compares passages in the text with Thoreau’s journal entries and other writings, offering insight into how Thoreau reworked some of his ideas. He is a voluble annotator – the book contains thousands of notes, with 427 for the first (and longest) chapter, Economy, alone. There are some pages where there is no body text at all, to allow for the multiple annotations, yet it is surprising at times to come across pages where he finds nothing to say.While I cannot judge the scholarly value of Cramer’s notes, they are certainly voluminous. If they do not cover all the details, I doubt that another edition with more notes will come along for some time. However, some of the notes make me question the usefulness of the way the notes are presented. For example, on page 81, Thoreau says, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a form or the county jail.” Cramer’s note says: “Thoreau was committed to the county jail in July 1846 for nonpayment of taxes.” Really? Do tell… Alas, there is no more about this (famous) incident in Thoreau’s life. Off to the index to see… When I look up jail, it does not refer me to page 81 (suggesting that the index is not quite up to par), but to pages 166 and 308. On the former, I find a better explanation of this incident. It would have been much more useful to find, on page 81, a reference to this note on page 166. Adding notes or references to other notes makes the overall text a bit more cumbrous, but oh so much more complete!

What is perhaps the most important aspect of this book for any die-hard Walden aficionado is its layout. Leaving aside the apocryphal illustrations that appear beneath each chapter title (animals, leaves and berries, even a steam locomotive), what counts most in a book like this is its readability. And the readability depends on the book’s layout. I must say that this is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The canonical text (Thoreau’s text) takes up just over half the total page width. It is presented in slim columns with a thin rule in the form of a box surrounding the text on both sides of a double-page spread. The font is attractive and very readable. At the margins of the canonical text is the annotations, in a smaller, sans serif font, which contrasts well with the main text and is equally readable.

Yet the layout is insufficient for one wishing to read Walden alone, and not focus on the annotations. In an ideal annotated edition of any text, the notes should be in the background enough so the reader can ignore them easily. Here, since the notes cover so much space, this is not possible. With the body text being as slim as it is, the notes look as though the cover half the page. And, with the gutter (the space between the text and the binding at the inside of the pages) being too small, you have to push the book flat to read it comfortably. If you simply let it sit flat on a desk on in your lap, it is difficult to read the words at the center of the book.

It is clearly the density of the annotations that led to this layout. But the publisher had a chance to make a book that was both useful (the annotations) and attractive (the layout); unfortunately, they chose the former. This edition, while fine for reading the notes, is not conducive to a casual, fire-side read of Walden. It is an excellent addition to the library of any Thoreauvian – I’d even say it is an essential book for anyone wishing to better understand Thoreau and Walden – but it is not the edition I would pick up to simply read a chapter or two of the work. (The recent edition by Shambhala, with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, or the paperback or hardcover Library of America editions, are perhaps best for casual reading.) Nevertheless, this is an invaluable work for a better understanding of this, one of the greatest texts of American literature.


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Henry David Thoreau and the Walden Mailing List


The Walden mailing list is dedicated to Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 to May 6, 1862). It is named after his best known work, Walden, a recounting of a period of time he spent living “deliberately” next to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau was a writer and philosopher, as well as an activist. As he wrote, in Walden,
“it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”

We offer the list as a place to discuss:

  • The pleasure that Thoreau’s writing provides us and the relevance of his ideas to life in the 21st Century.
  • Books about Thoreau’s life and works
  • Other authors from the period called The American Renaissance, particularly ones whose lives or literature moved Thoreau. (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, etc.)
  • Living deliberately
  • Nature writing and environmental concerns
  • A place to meet others who share your interest in the world of Henry David Thoreau.

Note: this list was initially created in 1996, and was housed on a server which has since disappeared. For that reason, the first five years of archives were lost. The list was moved to Yahoo.com in late 2001, and it was then moved to Google Groups. Archives are available for the Yahoo mailing list from 2001 to 2014.

To subscribe to this mailing list, go to the https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/walden-list at Google Groups.

If you want a very good annotated version of Walden – arguably one of the finest books written in the English language – see this review.

Thoreau Links

The riverText cafĂ©: Brian Thomas’ site, which notably houses If Monks had Macs
The Thoreau Society: Perhaps the best Thoreau site, with e-texts of almost all of his works, biographical info, scholarship, and lots more.
Henry David Thoreau online: a comprehensive site about Thoreau, with e-texts of many of his works
The Thoreau Reader: annotated works of Henry David Thoreau
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: definitive editions of Thoreau’s works
Ken Pedersen’s Walden CD: music inspired by Thoreau
Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson: my website dedicated to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading mind behind Transcendentalism