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Does Thoreau's 'Walden' need a 21st-century update?

Why one writer has launched an ambitious new Kickstarter campaign to make Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' more accessible to modern readers.

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    One writer worries that 19th-century classic 'Walden' contains archaic references and dense passages which may prove impenetrable for 21st-century audiences.
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Do classics need to be updated?

Matt Steel thinks so. The designer and writer has launched an ambitious new Kickstarter campaign to update Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," to make it more accessible for modern readers. 

First published in 1854, the classic book chronicles the roughly two years Thoreau spent living a simple life in the woods in a cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” Thoreau famously wrote in the book. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

But "Walden," which also contains archaic references and dense passages which may prove impenetrable for 21st-century audiences, has been facing a declining readership for decades.

Mr. Steel wants to change that.

“While widely quoted, 'Walden' is rarely read anymore, and our society’s familiarity with the story is fading,” Steel told the UK's Guardian. “My theory is that there’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s the 19th-century language that’s problematic. By creating an updated version of 'Walden,' I want to create more opportunities for other people’s lives to be enriched by this book.”

He's trying to raise $104,000 through his Kickstarter campaign to print 2,000 cloth hardcover, illustrated copies of a modernized version of "Walden," due out in spring 2017.

Steel's personal experience with the book, which he said had a "profound impact on him," fueled this project.

“Having gone through a period of career burnout, followed by radical lifestyle change, I could see that Thoreau’s ideas around simplicity, consumerism, and busyness had an uncanny relevance to the challenges we face today," he wrote on his Kickstarter page. "I shared my enthusiasm for the book with anyone willing to listen. But I kept having to couch my recommendations: ‘This is an incredible book, but the 19th-century language is hard to digest at times. But stick with it, and you’ll be glad you did!’

"This situation bothered me. I didn’t want to keep telling people they should read Walden – ‘but …’. I realized that what this story needs is to be updated for modern readers.”

This is not the first time writers have attempted to modernize classics. The works of Truman Capote, Jane Austen, and even Shakespeare have undergone updates, sometimes dramatically so. In some cases, Aston Martins replace horses, Facebook posts replace gossip, and text messages replace face-to-face exchanges.

But Steel says readers can expect updates to style, not substance, in his adaptation of "Walden," for which he is partnering with a co-editor, author, poet, and editor Billy Merrell.

"Walden is a vital piece of literature, and Billy and I are taking every precaution to ensure that this new edition is a faithful adaptation," he writes. "To that end, I am not revising 'Walden' to the point of removing any of Thoreau’s ideas or adding my own. I have no wish to impose my style or opinions on such a celebrated author. But I believe the degree to which the English language has changed over the past two centuries has made it harder for readers to get into this particular text.

"I want to shorten the distance between 1854 and today as much as possible, so that the lyrical beauty, wisdom, and power of this excellent text can shine.”

Among the changes Steel proposes are including translations of Greek and Latin references, updating archaisms like "I would fain," to "I wish," breaking apart especially long sentences, and changing "men" to "people," where Thoreau references humanity. Steel, a designer and former creative director, also proposes a number of sleek design and formatting updates to make the book more visually appealing, including pull quotes, prose poems, and full-color illustrations by artist Brooks Salzwedel.

(These changes are possible because "Walden" is in the public domain and copyright-free, so anyone can change the book.)

And Steel doesn't plan to stop with "Walden." If this project is successful, Steel told the Guardian he plans to adapt other classics.

“The loss of accessibility in books has been going on for millennia, as has the practice of updating them in order to prevent their disappearance. But I think we tend to wait too long. With this project, I hope to show the benefits of shortening revision cycles. I believe this will allow the world’s best stories to remain evergreen."

Readers interested in Steel's Kickstarter campaign can learn more here.

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