Welcome back to the Monday Inspirations series for an inspiring post from Matt Steel.
Have you ever read a book that made you more awake and aware? A book that made you wiser, kinder, or more creative? That challenged the way you see the world and your role in it? In my life thus far, there have been several books that catalyzed various turning points. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is near the top of that list, despite the fact that it took two attempts for the book to work its power in me.
Thoreau was a man of many facets and trades: A writer, transcendentalist philosopher, naturalist, abolitionist, surveyor, and historian, among others. In 1845, Thoreau built a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. He wanted to create a quiet place where he could write. But he also wished to withdraw from the noise of society and gain a clear view of it, live simply in the thick of nature, and, in his own words, “to suck all the marrow out of life.” He did not want to reach the end of his life only to find out that he “had not lived.”
Thoreau lived on the Pond for about two years. Walden is the account of his experiment and reflections during that time. First published in 1854, Walden is a heady mix of memoir, philosophy, satire, and nature writing. Although the book was initially met with small success, many later critics have praised it as an American classic that explores simplicity, harmony, and the savage beauty of nature.
The first time I tried to read Walden, I flunked out about halfway through the first chapter. Initially attracted by the concept of Thoreau’s experiment, I found myself quickly entangled in a dense thicket of language. I had expected to hear about the cabin he built in the first chapter; instead, I encountered an essay on economics and societal vice, with many twists and turns. As Ken Kifer says, “[Thoreau] can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence.” But the story is packed with provocative ideas, arresting imagery, and enlightened observations. I simply didn’t get far enough to reap the rewards.
It’s worth noting that this first attempt at reading Walden happened around 2011, during a dark period in my life. I was addicted to work, putting in absurdly long hours which eventually led to burnout. I had made a series of fear-based decisions in my design business that contributed to its eventual demise. Feeling pulled in too many directions at any given time, I simply lacked the mental bandwidth and patience for such a challenging book.
Regardless of any reader’s emotional or mental state, the fact is that Walden is full of run-on sentences, page-long paragraphs, outdated syntax and archaic words. The ways we read and write have changed significantly since the mid 19th century. But as I eventually discovered, this book is well worth the effort, and it only improves with re-reading. And crucially, the story is more relevant than ever.
In Walden’s first chapter, Thoreau delivered the most eloquent and scathing criticism of consumerism that I’ve ever read. He saw that many of his fellow men and women were spending their best moments straining after far more than they needed; chasing after possessions and comforts that would never satisfy their deepest longings. He discovered that when we reject greed, simplify our lives, and pursue living in the present, a quiet revolution takes place inside the spirit and ripples outward into the lives of others. Walden is the evidence of this discovery.
What if there was a way to make Walden more readable without dumbing it down or abridging it in any way? What if we could revise the text in such a way that it still feels and sounds like Thoreau, keeping all the ideas intact but updating the language to suit how people read in the 21st century? What if it was beautifully designed and illustrated, and produced as a high-quality edition that could last for hundreds of years? I believe all of these things are possible.
I’m creating a new adaptation of Walden that carefully removes the literary obstacles that have accumulated since 1854. The book will be launched on Kickstarter on February 16, 2016.
My hope is that this new version will incite a rebellion. A rebellion against the self-imposed tyranny of consumerism. A rebellion against the “mean and sneaking lives” that so many of us live, thinking we have no other choice when we really do. A rebellion against dissipation, listlessness, numbness, fear, the cult of busyness, and the addiction to comfort. I want readers to discover the freedom of choosing “must” instead of “should,” to borrow a concept from elle luna.
I believe in this vision so much that I’ve left my job as a creative director to work on the new Walden full time.
Have I lost my mind? Maybe. But what if I’m onto something?
Matt Steel is a St. Louis based designer who writes, a father of three, and a husband of one. Since 2003, Steel has worked as a graphic designer, entrepreneur, essayist, and most recently a creative director. As a designer, Steel has spent over 12 years studying how people read, designing enjoyable reading experiences in print and on screens. He also has a popular column called Love Letters on Medium, where he publishes essays on culture, publishing, design, and lifestyle.