Selected Passages from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.
I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
* * *
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent. Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained. I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
* * *
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
* * *
Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate. Self-emancipation even in the West Indian provinces of the fancy and imagination — what Wilberforce is there to bring that about? Think, also, of the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions against the last day, not to betray too green an interest in their fates! As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
* * *
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
* * *
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854).
* * * * *
Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.
Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
We all write history. Whatever we write about in the realm of non-fiction is something from the past, or it may be our take on past events. In fact, there is no way those events could be anything else but past events; even if we are writing about our feelings, those feelings have to happen before we can write about them. Fiction writers also write about history, because everything they create is based on what they have experienced and learned in their own past. The fact that they are going beyond the bounds of reality in their imagined worlds does not prevent their own past experiences from setting the guideposts for what they portray happening in their stories. Why is this important? Well, as a historian myself, I have had many opportunities to learn about the limitations a historian faces when trying to explain a past event: quality of sources, personal inclinations, etc. So, if it is true that all writers engage with history, then I think some consideration of the things to watch out for when you are writing history may assist you to be “clearer” in your own writing.
One of the trickiest things about being a writer is being able to write without your personal preferences getting in the way of your subject matter. To write about a subject without any personal bias is impossible, it is what is referred to as “writing objectively”, but you can be clearer in your writing style and avoid writing subjectively — that is, writing purely from your own perspective. The first step is to simply acknowledge that you have this bias and make some effort to reign it in. Admitting you have biases that will make your written work less clear, unless the point of your work is to explain to the reader what your biases are, is the first step to writing in a more convincing way. Consider the observation of historian John Lukacs on two other historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt [and do not worry about the German words he throws in, historians have a tendency to throw in German, French, or Latin terms; it’s just one of “those things”.]:
It is perhaps significant that the limits of objectivity were recognized by Tocqueville and Burckhardt better than by Ranke: unlike the latter, the aristocrat Tocqueville and the patrician Burckhardt admitted and knew many of their personal inclinations and their existing prejudices: and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that they succeeded in overcoming them on occasion. “I began my study of the old régime full of prejudices against the clergy,” Tocqueville wrote, “I ended it full of respect.” (How few of our professional intellectuals would dare to admit such a thing nowadays, let alone put it in a book!) Burckhardt in one of his lectures made a beautiful distinction between Vorliebe and Parteilichkeit, a personal tendency of being attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures, as distinct from mere partisanship; the former was good and proper, the latter wrong. The person of the historian is to determine his work, Burckhardt said. “We are not objective.” “Personal participation is unavoidable.”
Historical Consciousness (Transaction:2003): 235.
For clarity’s sake, Vorliebe means ‘preference’ or ‘liking something’, whereas Parteilichkeit means ‘partiality’ or ‘bias’. This relates to the general tack of this blog, clear writing, and here the eminent historian is not being clear to the average English reader. The question he had to answer is whether, given the fact the average reader will not understand the German terms, he still wanted to use them anyway? Clearly, he did. In your own writings you will also have to consider the use of technical language, for lack of a better term, and where and when you are willing to use it. But for now, let’s quickly consider what Lukacs observed about writing objectively. That is the important bit!
We take it as a given that we participate in what we write, a la Burckhardt. But here we are presented with two trajectories of participation in writing: one where we are “attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures,” and another where we are partial to a cause or person, or have biases that guide our writing. These historians agree that — I paraphrase and translate — a healthy interest and respect for a subject is a good thing, while writing out of our biases is a bad thing.
Their observations are good ones. Happy writing.
You can find more tips on writing here.
A selected passage from Aes Triplex by Robert Louis Stevenson
To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation in the end. Lord look after his health, Lord have a care of his soul, says he; and he has at the key of the position, and swashes through incongruity and peril towards his aim. Death is on all sides of him with pointed batteries, as he is on all sides of all of us; unfortunate surprises gird him round; mim-mouthed friends and relations hold up their hands in quite a little elegiacal synod about his path: and what cares he for all this? Being a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he touch the goal. ‘A peerage or Westminster Abbey!’ cried Nelson in his bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of every nation tread down the nettle danger, and pass flyingly over all the stumbling-blocks of prudence. Think of the heroism of Johnson, think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him upon his dictionary, and carried him through triumphantly until the end! Who, if he were wisely considerate of things at large, would ever embark upon any work much more considerable than a halfpenny post card? Who would project a serial novel, after Thackeray and Dickens had each fallen in mid-course? Who would find heart enough to begin to live, if he dallied with the consideration of death?
Aes Triplex (meaning ‘Triple Brass; a strong defense’)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Aes Triplex , The Oxford Book of Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 314-315.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
People often spend too much time on Facebook. The site is not intrinsically a bad one, it’s just that people are pummeled with far too much information, given human nature. For many millennia, humans lived in communities where the good or bad news they heard about was from within, perhaps, one hundred miles at the outside. With the introduction of mass media in the last two hundred or so years — I refer to the increasingly wide availability of it and not its mere arrival — we are getting far too much bad news, useless news, and random facts about other peoples lives that tend to pull us away from the things we should be doing: working on things to improve our own lives. We need to develop skills in Time Management.
Working is important. But working is not all just ‘work’, so to speak. Improving yourself by exercising, reading, creating or building something, helping others, etc., are examples of things that would fall under the rubric (heading) of what I have indicated above as “working on.” There are so many things we could be working on, right? Well, it may be an idea, then, to choose one and begin it so that we can accomplish something besides time on the internet. Sometimes, there are so many things to do we feel overwhelmed, and do not do anything instead. But, if we take the most important few things, and do those in manageable stages, we will have accomplished things that needed to get done, and however overly simplistic this formula seems to appear, it works. This blog is about writing, and writing things down can be a useful way to help you with your time management and make sure you get things done.
It was once said that “what gets written down, gets done.” I make use of the wisdom of this proverb on a regular basis, and it helps. I just make a list of the things I need to do, the familiar “to do list”, and I try to accomplish as many as I can. I do not put too many things on the list, because my lists are usually for one day only, and it is better to focus on a few things that need to get done and get them done, rather than expecting yourself to do more than you are able to do in a given day. And besides, if it needs to get done, then you want to give that task lots of wiggle room and not crowd it with too much other, less important, work.
Completing the important things we need to do can be negatively impacted by the time we spend each day on the internet, doing whatever it is we do there. Mostly, we are filling our minds looking at other people’s lives, opinions, and latest news, but the important thing is we are spending time reading about other people’s lives. But for each hour we do, we are not spending that hour on our own life. Remember, as you spend time and energy on the bustling world of internet updates, in some sense you are taking it away from what should go towards your own daily “updates”, your life. Consider this quote from Horace Mann:
Horace Mann 1796-1859
Colons are cool: they are used to help the writer convey more detail or emphasis on what they have introduced in the first part of their sentence, an independent clause. The colon is one of the most underused instruments in a writer’s toolbox, but I encourage you to consider using it more regularly. Use it between connected independent clauses or before a list, whenever the situation calls for it. The two most common uses are (1) using it after the first part of a sentence, which is technically a complete sentence on its own, to precede more detail or emphasis on what you introduced to the reader in the first part. (2) The second most common use is related to the first, only in this case your details come in the form of a list. Two quick examples:
(1) The boy had a small dog: a miniature Great Dane.
You can see how the first part of the sentence is a sentence all its own. The second part gives the reader an important detail about the first part of the sentence.
(2) The boy had a Great Dane with unique features: it was only twenty inches tall, had long ears, a dark brown coat, and appeared to smile at you.
Here again, important details, but in a list.
Remember, what comes after the colon in the second part of the sentence must be connected to the first part, it must give a detail or details about what you presented to the reader in the first part. You can also see here above, I used a colon after the words “Two quick examples.” This is standard practice for many writers, and you can see how this usage follows the general requirement for a colon that what follows it is connected to what comes before it. Like all punctuation ought to, the colon helps the reader in terms of sentence flow. It’s all about flow when it comes to reading, and colons can help you create a pause that will signal the reader to do the same.
A few words about flow. Sentence flow is the rhythm the reader senses when reading your writing, and you want it to move like the current of a deep and strong river. Sometimes that can be slow moving, or you can get into a whitewater flow, but both are effective tactics pursuant to your specific context. With a writer like Charles Dickens, the flow is fairly slow, but in his best works it keeps you moving with interest: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, for instance. Dickens’s flow is slower, as well, because he uses a great deal of colorful adjectives, and very insightful names for his characters, using onomatopoeia: in Greek, this word means ‘making names’. While technically it refers to the imitation of a sound, it can also, I think, point to a word with another meaning which we are more familiar with. Think of the lawyer in Great Expectations, Jaggers. His name sounds like “daggers”, and in our minds we are pulled towards that and Dickens, I suggest, knew this very well. Many of his characters’ names are created in this way. But there is the rub, having really interesting names, lots of description, and his famous long sentences, slows the reader down. But good for him, we still love his writing.
The important thing to remember is that flow is real for readers, and it either helps them or hinders them based on its quality level. I have previously given you some ideas as to what will help you create better flow, in a previous post, found here. In this current post I have been referring to flow in sentences, but there is flow in the narrative/plot overall, flow between paragraphs and chapters, and flow in character development. These are a few of the more important instances of flow.
Bleak House: Opening (in part) by Charles Dickens
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
Editors can help us in the process of writing better. They tend to convert writing from unclear to clearer. There is no clear, remember that. Perfect writings do not exist. Like one of my professors once told me, you can always go back to a piece of writing and make changes, no matter how far along in the process of writing you are; even if you have published a work, there will always be changes you could have made. So if clear writing is actually non-existent, then clearer writing is the goal that every writer should aim for. In an important sense, to be clearer is clear enough. I think there are three simple ways you can, generally, make your own writing clearer.
- The Second Set of Eyes principle – Having someone else read your written work, anyone who can read basically, can help you immeasurably, and here is why. All people read in rhythms and cadence with various levels of comprehension. So, have the people you have read your writing highlight those areas that they trip up on in their natural reading rhythm, and have them indicate at what point they paused. Then, go back and read those passages again to see if a change is warranted. The fact is, you are your own worst critic at times, and this is one of those times. Think about it, if there is an error with your sentence flow, and you “should” have caught it, you would have, but you didn’t. Having more than one person read your work is also a good idea, but as indicated above, no written work is perfect, so leave perfection behind and merely aim to write in as clear a way as possible
- Time heals all “words” – The second practice is connected to the first, but the person reading it again is you. I suggest you take some time in between readings. Oftentimes, once a piece of writing is complete, if you leave a day or two, or even longer if you have time, in between the time you wrote it and when you read it again, you will find things you want to change to make your writing clearer.
- Connecting your dots – The third practice is to make sure your writing is connected. This applies to sentences, paragraphs, and body. Think of your work as a chain which pulls your idea/thesis closer to the person reading it as they go through it. It is important that none of the links in this chain fail. A sentence ought to be connected to the one that preceded it, a paragraph to the one before, and this applies to chapters as well.
These are a few ways to get you on the path to writing more clearly.
If you have any questions about what I have written here, send me a message — happy to make the meaning clearer. You can find my contact info here.
A passage from The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
[Aboard the vessel Quaker City headed for Europe in 1867]
I picked up a good deal of information during the afternoon. At one time I was climbing up the quarterdeck when the vessel’s stem was in the sky; I was smoking a cigar and feeling passably comfortable. Somebody ejaculated:
“Come, now, that won’t answer. Read the sign up there – NO SMOKING ABAFT THE WHEEL!”
It was Captain Duncan, chief of the expedition. I went forward, of course. I saw a long spyglass lying on a desk in one of the upper-deck state-rooms back of the pilot-house and reached after it – there was a ship in the distance.
“Ah, ah – hands off! Come out of that!”
I came out of that. I said to a deck-sweep – but in a low voice: “Who is that overgrown pirate with the whiskers and the discordant voice?”
“It’s Captain Bursley – executive officer – sailing master.”
I loitered about awhile, and then, for want of something better to do, fell to carving a railing with my knife. Somebody said, in an insinuating, admonitory voice:
“Now, say – my friend – don’t you know any better than to be whittling the ship all to pieces that way? You ought to know better than that.”
I went back and found the deck sweep.
“Who is that smooth-faced, animated outrage yonder in the fine clothes?”
“That’s Captain L****, the owner of the ship – he’s one of the main bosses.”
In the course of time I brought up on the starboard side of the pilot-house and found a sextant lying on a bench. Now, I said, they “take the sun” through this thing; I should think I might see that vessel through it. I had hardly got it to my eye when someone touched me on the shoulder and said deprecatingly:
“I’ll have to get you to give that to me, Sir. If there’s anything you’d like to know about taking the sun, I’d as soon tell you as not – but I don’t like to trust anybody with that instrument. If you want any figuring done – Aye, aye, sir!”
He was gone to answer a call from the other side. I sought the deck-sweep.
“Who is that spider-legged gorilla yonder with the sanctimonious countenance?”
“It’s Captain Jones, sir – the chief mate.”
“Well. This goes clear away ahead of anything I ever heard of before. Do you – now I ask you as a man and a brother – do you think I could venture to throw a rock here in any given direction without hitting a captain of this ship?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know – I think likely you’d fetch the captain of the watch maybe, because he’s a-standing right yonder in the way.”
I went below – meditating and a little downhearted. I thought, if five cooks can spoil a broth, what may not five captains do with a pleasure excursion.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869; 1899), chapter 3, 63-65.
You can read more selected passages from notable authors here.
Hi, and welcome to my website. I am Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, in the Faculty of Law. My research interests include legal history, legal philosophy, law and religion, and state sovereignty.
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