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On Writing Well
William Zinsser

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Steve Gardiner

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Paulo Coelho

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The Literate Learner Featured Article of the Week

The Journals of Henry David Thoreau


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by Steve Gardiner
June 1, 2014

I have long been a fan of Thoreau. I did not appreciate Walden when my high school English teacher presented it to us junior year, but by the time I rediscovered it in college, it became one of my favorite books.

I think what I admire most is his ability to express a thought clearly, and so often, in memorable prose. Not an easy thing to do. In fact, Thoreau himself wrote, “There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life and then get it expressed.” Yet he does.

 

In addition to Walden, I have read other books by Thoreau—The Main Woods, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Faith in a Seed. Reading his journals is a different experience. It's a long-term project, a marathon in the reading world. I took about six months to read the 700-page version called The Journal 1837-1861 (New York Review Books, 2009). I would read a few pages in the evening and then have to stop to think about what he said. Each page is loaded with thought which is exactly what makes Thoreau's journal an interesting read.

 

Also, journal reading is different than edited prose in that he often cycles back on an idea after he has had time to ponder it on his many lengthy walks and river trips. He might take on an idea like writing and then examine it from many angles over the span of years. For example, on writing he said, “Nothing goes by luck in composition. It allows of no tricks. The best you can write will be the best you are. Every sentence is the result of a long probation. The author's character is read from title-page to end.”

 

A few years later, he added, “It is wise to write on many subjects, to try many themes, that so you may find the right and inspiring one. Be greedy of occasions to express your thought. Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth.”

 

He saw his purpose in life was to walk and observe. Most of his journal entries begin with “Walked to Walden” or “Perambulated the Lincoln Line” or “Down river in boat to the Holt.” He often added a note on temperature or weather conditions, stating that those considerations often affect the mood and ideas involved in a walk or river journey.

 

On these outings, he watched and thought. He makes hundreds of observations of ice on the rivers and ponds, of the birds and their migrations, of the colors of the plants and their daily changes, or the trees he has come to know personally.

 

He noted, “The scenery, when it is truly seen, reacts on the life of the seer. How to live. How to get the most life. How to extract its honey from the flower of the world. That is my every-day business.”

 

To read Thoreau's journals is to watch a man discovering the world, enjoying it, and living it. His thoughts meander like the rivers he so loved, yet move forward discovering a purpose. His daily writings gave him a forum to work with ideas, to clarify them, to distill them. He explained that “a journal is a record of experiences and growth.”

His joy in exploring the world of Concord and the surrounding fields and streams is evident throughout the journals. At the age of 39, he wrote, “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”

 

One of the best books ever written on the art of writing is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Thoreau said it was difficult to express a thought, but as Zinsser said, “Open Walden to any page and you will find a man saying in a plain and orderly way what is on his mind.” That would be every writer's goal.


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