Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

Continue reading “Reading without Principle”


I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus: