Thoreau and the news

The first time I read Thoreau was in 8th or 9th grade English class, and I had no use for the guy. I grew up on a farm, feeling pretty disconnected from the modern world, and was pretty actively trying to connect to it. So I had little patience for some earnest jackass who preached about renouncing it.

But clearly, I had a pretty strong reaction, and he definitely touched a nerve. And I find little bits of Walden coming in to my head from time to time.

Every time I find myself getting a news addiction, I think of this:

After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe” – and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

… And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

…What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old!

I find this kind of thing comforting when news cycles seem to be heating up, when world events seem to be impossibly dire. And I am occasionally attracted by more contemporary variations of this attitude.

I guess what I ultimately don’t buy is that withdrawal from the world is somehow the answer. I think that it’s better to stay engaged, while keeping it all in perspective. People have been feeling like the world is spinning out of control for thousands of years — O tempora! O mores! — and sometimes it is, but usually it isn’t. A coward dies a thousand times, etc. (which also comes straight to you from 8th grade English class…)