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Thoreau and the iPad

December 17, 2013 | by


Recently I took my iPad to a park across a lake, sat under a tree facing the water, and started reading the e-book version of Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic avowal of the possibility of, as well as the necessity for, simplicity amid modern life’s profusion and superfluity. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t get much more dissonant than this.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys … improved means to an unimproved end,” wrote the handyman sage in the book’s first chapter, titled “Economy.” Few toys are prettier than the iPad, and its prettiness is by no means a feat of economy. Its minimalism, for one, belies the complexity of thought that went into its design, while its ease of use obscures the intricacy of the industry behind its manufacture. That there’s nothing new and improved about its ends should be evident from the resemblance between the categories of apps in the App Store and those of stores listed on the touchscreen directory at the entrance of shopping malls—that harried shopper’s guide to the nonvirtual versions of apps for games, books, sports, lifestyle, and even social networking. Or especially social networking, come to think of it, when you consider that the din from the food court or the theater lobby is nothing more than the noise from so many short messages being broadcast on an unmetered network with unlimited bandwidth.

But what does it matter if my iPad is merely a prettier means to pedestrian ends that are, in Thoreau’s words, “already but too easy to arrive at”? Does that make it one more toy to be transcended or tucked out of sight when meditating on sufficiency? I also own a paperback edition of Walden, its pages worn yellow with age and marred with the fervent notes of my much younger self. It has none of the iPad’s high-precision electronics; the letter m is smudged in several places, and yet it’s lost none of its functionality. And apart from enlightenment, it has only one other app, as a paperweight. Is this nonmultitasking relic the authentic medium for the all-in-one manifesto and proof-of-concept of the uncluttered life?

Thoreau would presumably have thought so. Although he did not list books among the necessities of life, he ranked them highly enough, next to the knife and the wheelbarrow, in fact, as one of the few articles that can be obtained at such little cost that they can be brought along on any wilderness retreat without disrupting its sense of freedom from urban encumbrance. If simplicity were a mere matter of thrift, then my copy of Walden, bought for the price of a tall latte, and certainly cheaper than a wheelbarrow, is indeed more fitting than my iPad as a companion on a furlough from the copious cares of networked living.

And that is exactly where these deliberations would have ended if my love of gadgets had capitulated to the logic of tools and coffee. But I’m the kind of person that Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he wrote of creatures of a given temperament who “resist the conclusion in the morning, but adopt it as the evening wears on.” I made some hasty conclusions about the iPad’s worth when I decided to buy one, and my conscience demands that the facts fit them.

The facts, as I’ve culled them, don’t come any fitter. My paperback copy of Walden is not just a vehicle for transcendental philosophy: it is also the result of a tightly orchestrated chain of industrial events spanning the globe—from the cultivation of trees and their distillation into pulp, to the pressing of ink to paper by machines run by arrays of circuit boards not too different from those found on the assembly lines of electronic gadgets like, um, the iPad. It is, like the rest of its log-begotten kind, the product of a world of toil no less taxing than Thoreau’s favorite spiritless enterprise, the laying of railroad tracks in nineteenth-century America.

Walden_ThoreauI will be generous here and not make much of the toll that book publishing exacts on the environment, except to observe the irony of contemplating the grace of life in the woods by reading Walden in its pulp form. What to me is a darker stain on the moral prestige of books in general and their right as bearers of transcendentalist doctrine in particular is their thick ledger of human resource. The million Irishmen who Thoreau posited as asking, “Is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” have been replaced by a truly multicultural mix of people tending pulpwood in far-flung countries with varied climates and literary tastes. If these people were to look up from the furrows they’ve made in the ground to ask if this book they’re building is a good thing, the avid reader of Thoreau would be tempted to dole out his original response: “Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse, but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

The same innuendos can be made about my iPad, of course, with the Chinese factory worker standing in for the Irish tracklayer or the Brazilian logger. In fact, just about any modern product is susceptible to such insinuations, which could be made against pretty much anything produced in factories or farms manned by people whose waking hours could be better spent on non–product-related pursuits. Thoreau conceded as much. “It certainly is better,” he wrote, “to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.” It was a hard pill to swallow, and one can almost hear him struggling to regurgitate it as he built his cabin, singing

Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings –
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.

But swallow it he did, and we have, as a result, one of the most eloquent examples of specious exposition ever set to prose—a demonstration of the Spartan life corroborated with the records of goods he’d acquired dirt cheap from people whose un-Spartan lifestyles often made such trade the exigent means of supporting their own extraneous pursuits and acquisitions. Thoreau’s retreat was, remarked the late John Updike, a luxury “financed by the surplus that an interwoven, slave-driving economy generates.”

My iPad is arguably the epitome of such luxury, one subsidized besides by a surplus of able minds and bodies from the world’s most populous assembly-line job agency. By all accounts, Thoreau, a Harvard graduate who used his own money to publish his first book, belonged to the class of people who, though not rock-star rich, could well afford such frill. If he had somehow been transplanted into our own time, perhaps by some mischievous time traveler out to show him that his admonitions have gone largely unheeded, his attention would undoubtedly be drawn to the iPad as one of the many unimproved means he can purchase with the money he’s sure to make simply by selling facsimiles of his journals and manuscripts. If I could play one role in this fantasy, I’d write myself in as the Apple store clerk faced with the formidable task of showing him the iPad and explaining exactly what the device is good for.

I’d have to tread carefully, of course, for here is the man who called it his greatest skill to want but little and whose writings exhorted me and other aspiring drifters in our youths to keep our accounts on our thumbnails even as we spent our parents’ money. I’d start by telling him that the iPad serves different ends for different people, but a person of his inclination will find in it a journal and a portable library. A quick scribble on the notepad app and a skim through the digital version of works by Montaigne, Voltaire, and his own spiritual kin, Walt Whitman, should make for more than ample exhibits. Then, just as his eyes start to glaze over, I’d draw his attention to the iPad’s unique advantage as the literary implement of choice to take along on a retreat to a secluded, electricity-deprived cabin—that advantage being its transient and virtually ephemeral battery life.

To understand this, one must first remember that Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden was by no means a withdrawal from society, a point he made clear by recounting some of his nearly daily strolls to town and conversations with the friends he made and often sought in the neighborhood of his cabin. Nor was it an abstinence from technology as it stood during his time. One of his first acts at Walden was to avail himself of a modest yet enduring piece of technology, one that felled entire forests long before the chainsaw: the ax. And despite his dismissal of news as gossip read by “old women over their tea,” he wasn’t above perusing the newspaper that served as wrapping for his dinner. If anything, Thoreau proved Spinoza’s axiom that “we can never bring it about that we need nothing outside ourselves for preservation.”

Temperance, not abnegation, therefore, is the real lesson, partly written and largely mimed, of the sermon that is Walden. The transcendentalist in the woods needs his journal and his books—they preserve his humanity no less than clothing or shelter—but they, too, need to be reined in. And what better rein on bookishness than the iPad’s battery, which lets him read and write only so much and then no more. No more, that is, until his next trip to town, where he can charge it as he eats his dinner, perhaps while browsing the news over a cup of tea. The roughly three hours it takes to restore it to full charge should give him enough time, moreover, to check in with a friend or, if he can find a safe place to leave it, wander through the shops or even see a movie. Enough time, in other words, to reconnect, in both the old and the new sense of the word.

The iPad’s battery meter itself has a significance that Thoreau, a born bookkeeper, should find especially apt. When the device is removed from a power source, the meter becomes a virtual tally, crude yet irrefutable, of its owner’s outlay of attention, that most profitable and most squandered of capitals. One full charge on the iPad is worth about ten hours of use as an e-book reader or a journal, but someone with more eclectic interests can go for days without recharging. Longer, even, if he takes short fasts from all literary work, as Thoreau did one summer, when he spent whole mornings sitting still, “rapt in a reverie,” unable or unwilling to “sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.” Walden’s revelations may well have been the harvests of those mornings, and the iPad-toting Thoreauvian should be mindful that every tick of its battery is so many minutes spent on what may be mere preparation for, if not diversion from, such moments.

A century and a half after Thoreau’s death, Walden has become, like Thoreau’s beloved classics, a “treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations.” It is also poised, well into the e-book era, to outlive its original medium. If our fantasies come to fruition, someday we’ll be transmitting it directly into our brains, to be recalled rather than read, like a gospel learned by heart. It will no doubt outlast the iPad, too, and its many inevitable iterations, shedding them one after the other, like so much outdated apparel. In this succession of hosts, each device in its turn will carry Thoreau’s words with little loss of resonance, for their prescription of discipline and moderation is, fortunately enough, compatible with technology in all of its incompatible variety.

Dannie Zarate lives in Australia with his wife and is an ardent student of the Indonesian culinary arts.



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