Walden: The Video Game, and Other News


On the Shelf

Finally, a chance to experience the magic of Walden firsthand!


  • I like Walden as much as the next guy. My problem with it—my problem with all books—is that it’s just such a passive experience for the reader. Thoreau does all the talking; I’m just supposed to listen. Thoreau does all the fishing; I’m just supposed to watch. Thoreau plants all the beans; he never asks, Hey, reader, would you like to come out here and give me a hand with the beans sometime? But all that’s about to change with Walden, a Game, the new video-game adaptation of Thoreau’s treatise on solitude that puts you in control of your spiritual self-discovery. Its designers, Robin Pogrebin writes, hope to fuse the thrills of gaming to the joys of quiet contemplation: “The new video game, based on Thoreau’s nineteenth-century retreat in Massachusetts, will urge players to collect arrowheads, cast their fishing poles into a tranquil pond, buy penny candies and perhaps even jot notes in a journal—all while listening to music, nature sounds and excerpts from the author’s meditations … Should you not leave sufficient time for contemplation, or work too hard, the game cautions: ‘Your inspiration has become low, but can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude and interacting with visitors, animal and human’ … The goal is not to win in any competitive sense, but to achieve work-life balance.”
  • Nell Zink, who tends to greet realist novels with a very formidable eye roll, writes in praise of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which gave her “some rigorous realist fiction to love”: “ ‘Realistic’ novels … generally don’t even try. They want to ‘work,’ to be ‘good reads,’ by manipulating emblems of meaning smoothly in a framework of familiar myth. Many work contemptibly, steering sentimental nodules of canned subjectivity into the cheesiest myths imaginable. Authors hope to inhibit readers’ critical urges entirely for as long as a given book lasts; in essays, interviews, and formats like ‘My Writing Day,’ we hint at the tricks we use to facilitate total audience immersion in our shared dream. Where we do intend readers to exercise critical faculties, those should be directed at something other than the work. They want a trance state, and we want to give it to them. But in that transaction, something vital is lost. That could be the reason so many admirable people read nonfiction instead: You can’t communicate with people you’re trying to hypnotize!”

  • Ren Hang, a queer Chinese photographer, has committed suicide at twenty-nine. Stephanie H. Hung describes his defiant work: “Using a small Minolta point-and-shoot camera, Ren Hang acts as director, moving hands and legs, lifting girls on top of girls, and arranging flowers on top of men. The subjects are all close friends or models he interviews beforehand who trust and respond well to the photographer’s demands. The resulting photographs—untitled and dated only for convenience—do not consciously attempt to address queer identity in China but rather function as a form of play or performance in a place where any explicit declaration of same-sex orientation is still considered risky and nude photographs are routinely labeled pornographic … He develops and scans his film at private studios to avoid obscenity charges and has become keenly aware of the potential for censorship. Still, he is often harassed online, and his works, when on public view, have been spit upon or taken down, leaving only empty frames.”
  • Instead of plunking down for a faceless Airbnb rental on some beach, book a trip to Guge, the medieval kingdom nestled in the Himalayas, at least ten hours from the nearest airport. David Shulman offers a primer: “Guge was once home to a major inner-Asian dynasty whose artists and craftsmen produced a plethora of masterpieces over some five centuries. Although many of these works did not survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution, those that did—including some large-scale murals and exquisitely carved and painted sculptures depicting Buddhist visions of the cosmos and its deities—give us a tantalizing sense of the lost world that imagined them into being … The monumental paintings that have survived in the Guge caves and temple-monasteries guide the meditating monk, also the casual visitor, through overlapping universes. They follow an iconographic program set out in detail in Sanskrit texts known as the Tantras of Practice. At the center of many of the artistic sequences (in Guge as in the famous monastery of Tabo in the Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalayas) is the Buddha of Intense Light, Vairocana, one of a series of three, or five, or thirty-seven, or even a thousand Buddhas and other divine beings who, worshiped together, can release the disciplined seeker from all sorrow.”
  • Jonathan Guyer tells the story of Ahmed Naji, the Egyptian novelist sentenced to prison on obscenity charges: “On February 20th, 2016, an appeals court sentenced Naji to the maximum sentence: two years. It was the first time that a writer had landed in prison for fiction—not activism or reportage, but fiction—in recent memory … Hani Saleh Tawfik, the lawyer who began Naji’s imbroglio, claimed to have experienced a fluttering heart and lowered blood pressure after reading Naji’s fiction, which, according to the police report, included ‘pussy licking, dick sucking, and other such words that should not be written in a newspaper like Akhbar Al-Adab.’ ”