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Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Thoreau and the iPad

December 17, 2013 | by

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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? Read More »

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Happy Election Day

November 5, 2013 | by

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“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” —Henry David Thoreau

 

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Reading the Viaduct

December 4, 2012 | by

Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.

The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year. Read More »

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The Modern Monastery: Pussy Riot in Prison

October 11, 2012 | by

Philadelphia's Walnut Street Penitentiary

“Prison,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in her interview with GQ, “is like a monastery—it’s a place for ascetic practices.” Member of the celebrated but incarcerated band Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova gave voice to the belief that prison can be a soul-changing institution: an idea that inspired the American penal system.

The same year that America declared its independence from Great Britain, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail opened. Its first major addition came in 1790 at the instigation of Quaker reformers who proposed “a penitentiary house” of sixteen individual cells for solitary confinement.

The penitentiary, unlike jails or prisons, set itself to the task of rehabilitating prisoners. Religious penance became the paradigm for criminal punishment; the monastic chamber served as the model for the prison cell. Walnut Street exemplified the philosophy of what became known as the Pennsylvania System, which separated prisoners from one another while enforcing silence and manual labor as mechanisms for transformation.

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What We’re Loving: Kim’s Video, Grant’s Memoirs

September 14, 2012 | by

Even if you’ve never read a book about the Civil War, the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant will grip your imagination. Dictated by Grant on his deathbed, championed and published by Mark Twain, celebrated by Matthew Arnold and Edmund Wilson (who compared it to Walden and Leaves of Grass), the Memoirs were cited by Gertrude Stein as a main influence on her own prose. However you may write, you'll find their power is contagious. Every page is a lesson in force, clarity, and grace under pressure. To read Grant’s description of a military problem, then to read the orders he gave, is, among other things, to see a great modern writer at work. —Lorin Stein

Have you ever imagined a music video as you listen to a song? Sigur Ros asked a dozen filmmakers to do just that with songs from their new album. The results are pretty great, but my favorite—and I’m hardly impartial—is Dash Shaw’s animated (I mean that literally) take on “Valtari.” Penned with Shortbus and Hedwig writer John Cameron Mitchell, the video features backgrounds by Frank Santoro, whose colors are, as ever, divine. —Nicole Rudick

If you’re in agreement with a friend of mine who considers most recent American covers of Cormac McCarthy’s novels “oversaturated Windows wallpapers” (why yes, Cormac, that horse is very pretty), then perhaps you will be both pleased and envious to know that the British ones now look like this, and apparently have for some time. Thanks to the now-defunct Aesthetic Book Blog for this gritty eye candy. And check out The Millions’ annualish comparison of American and British book covers for further contemplation.  —Samuel Fox

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