A couple of weeks ago, a man I got talking to in the pub leant me Henry Thoreau’s Walden; A Life in the Woods. I’d assumed it would be the summer before I got round to reading it. How quickly things have changed. On much reduced hours (work is operating on a rota system) I, like many others, have had time to read. There’s a strange sort of synchronisity at play here. Someone lends me a book about a man who purposely isolates himself, then the nation goes into lockdown and I find myself isolated. No doubt this, in part, explains why so much of Thoreau’s writing has struck a chord with me. For example, I found myself sending a flurry of emails out at the start of the week, mostly for my own reassurance I think, touching base with friends, trying to get my head round what’s happening. How important were they? I’m not sure. I copied them into a file, to look back on later as a sort of journal of crisis. Almost immediately, I noticed they were full of everything and nothing, largely repetitive, devoid of any real meaning or insight. That’s email for you – cheap, instant communication. And then there’s the newsfeed you can’t help but look at as you log on.
Here’s what Thoreau has to say on the subject of communication:
For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications to be made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life … that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked or one steamboat blown up, or on cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, – we never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principal, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip … yet not a few are greedy for this gossip.’
Emails are our penny post. We are surrounded by news 24/7. Thoreau made a conscious choice to lockdown of course. For us, it’s been imposed. It’s early days. We’re finding our way. We keep trying to imagine the future, knowing that what we should hold on to is the present. Perhaps, as writers, we know how to handle the silence. Personally, I’m think I’m learning how to manage my time in a different way, to keep to some sort of productive routine, trying not to panic when I look out of the kitchen window and see constant queues outside the supermarket. And when I do feel that sense of anxiety, I go back to reading Thoreau and try to keep it all in perspective: I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’
Thoreau, H.D., Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Dover Publications 1995, f. pub. 1854)