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Thoreau and Solitude

January 26, 2009

Just found in my e-mail inbox a link for a recent article titled The End of Solitude. A critique of the kinds of social connectivity and network that digital technology and web 2.0 has brought (wrought?). Thoreau makes an appearance (also Emerson). You might be interested to browse this invocation of Thoreau.

We will be reading further this week into Thoreau’s senses of solitude. The conventional view seems to be being along (as in, living in the woods alone). As with other paradoxes that we are starting to complicate and investigate, I think this is one. Put it this way, if Thoreau wants to be alone, why write a book critical of society, or be a writer at all. Writing presumes, I would argue, a social connection. I think the writer of this particular article misses this paradox signaled at the very beginning of Walden: at some level, this is a book for, and about, the ‘notice of his readers.’ I don’t assume Thoreau would have had a Facebook page. But I also don’t assume–based on how he writes about solitude, and all the reading that he does from the past–that Thoreau wouldn’t have had a blog or been fascinated with Wikipedia. An open question for me. (And without e-mail and the digital feed I set up from the Chronicle online–I don’t get the print version–I would never have been able to read the article “The End of Solitude”; if an essay is written in the wilderness and no one is around to read it, is it an essay?)

Yes, we have the tendency to become the tools of our tools. But as we started to discuss in class Monday, Thoreau defines those tools, and a synonymy would be technologies, very broadly. For example, the pencil is a tool, a technology, an invention (along with writing) that changes how people interact with the past and with each other. I forgot to mention, along the lines of Thoreau the writer,  that Thoreau’s father was a pencil maker and Thoreau himself apparently discovered and developed a new kind of pencil. Go figure.

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