Thoreau Still Beckons, if I Can Take My Laptop

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I now have a mind-boggling array of options.

I can shop for birthday gifts on the Internet, watch a funeral in Britain on "live" television, and order a complete wardrobe from a computer catalog.

A mother who works as a journalist, I also have the option of conducting my business in an office building or working at home on my computer while caring for my child. (In 10 years I could be wearing my computer on a string around my neck, or so the folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tell me.)

Every day I have more choices than I can reasonably consider. And so, like other tired Americans, I carry the burden of complexity - a burden so overwhelming, in fact, that there are times when I imagine trading places with Henry David Thoreau.

It's only fitting that I rediscovered Thoreau the week I purged my home office with a dust rag and a vacuum cleaner. The autumn mornings felt ripe for pitching and sorting. "Walden," Thoreau's famous treatise on simple living, was jammed behind a pile of unread paperbacks.

Like other writers with good intentions, I've admired Thoreau but hadn't read "Walden" since it appeared years ago on a required reading list at my state university. I'd retained only a few pithy quotes and sketchy details of Thoreau's Spartan cabin in the woods of Concord, Mass. But, suddenly, here was the book, whispering to me across the century - "Simplify, simplify" - and begging me to take another look.

Glancing through the pages, I realized Thoreau's words had been wasted on me when I first read them. I was a young college student living in a cramped dormitory, eager to graduate and buy enough furniture to fill a spacious suburban apartment.

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind," Thoreau warned in the chapter titled "Economy." Only an overworked adult - one who is drowning in the debris of modern life and pressed by the weight of too many commitments - could truly appreciate Thoreau's genius, I mused as I kept reading.

Yet it occurred to me that things were vastly different for Thoreau. The "comforts of life" in the 1840s were not exactly cushy by today's standards. His concept of luxury might have been taking tea in his mother's bone china saucers. So what had he given up to commune with nature?

Even before he moved to Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn't accumulated three television sets or a closetful of designer clothes. He didn't own several pairs of expensive athletic shoes for all those philosophical walks he took. His cot in the cabin couldn't have been more lumpy than the straw-filled mattresses in most mid-19th-century homes. And Thoreau never had to trade a personal computer for a pencil.

With all due respect, I wonder, how tough was Thoreau's two-year sabbatical with simplicity? Is it true that he occasionally walked from Walden Pond back to Concord, where Emerson's wife had a home-cooked supper waiting for him?

As Andrew Delbanco notes in his wise new book, "Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now," reading Thoreau can make us feel "accused of hoarding comforts." We might even want to find holes in Thoreau's impassioned pitch for the simple life.

And yet Thoreau is, as Delbanco says, "an irresistible writer; to read him is to feel wrenched away from the customary world and delivered into a place we fear as much as we need."

How true. Just as Thoreau did, I'd like to weed out, pare down, live deliberately, be a resident philosopher. (Would the family miss me?) A life devoid of clutter sounds absolutely blissful, especially when there are no empty spaces on my calendar.

But making choices is so much more difficult in a culture fueled by sheer busyness and commercialism. There are few places, few wooded Waldens, where one can escape the incessant bombardment of "to do" lists or product advertising.

Visiting the "real" Walden Pond this fall, I was amazed and disappointed to find the place overrun. Locals were strewn on its small beach. You couldn't walk the path around the pond without rubbing shoulders with other sightseers; there wasn't a spot left for solitary reflection.

If nothing else, my rendezvous with Thoreau got me thinking. What - and how much - do I really need? What price have I paid for modern technology and "convenience"? In which landfill will all my stuff end up?

How would I fare if I were delivered into a place I fear as much as I need, as Delbanco wisely put it? Could I survive in a one-room cabin with barely more than a chair, a wooden table, a bowlful of raw vegetables, and my laptop? Honestly, I wish I could.

* Cynthia La Ferle is a columnist and freelance writer based in Royal Oak, Mich. Her essays have appeared in many national publications.

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