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…)

2 thoughts on “Thoreau and the news”

  1. It’s a little known fact that what Cicero actually said was “Oh tempura! Oh s’mores!” Scholars speculate that this outburst was due to Cicero having over indulged in the then popular “Eat Like A Pregnant Woman Diet”

    Seriously though, I never could get through Walden and I lose patience every time people I hear people singing the praises of guys like Christopher McCandless. In a world where malnutrition and poverty are rampant I find it hard to muster sympathy for a child of privilege who decides to wander off into the woods without sufficient supplies or experience and ends up starving to death. Even Thoreau got care packages and could walk to his mom’s house whenever he got the munchies. No, total withdrawal isn’t the answer and few people can actually pull it off and survive. Just put down the paper and turn off the TV every once in a while; maybe go for a walk and then get back to work hippy.

  2. Wow…I’m totally going to frame this and hang it next to my coffeemaker. Maybe that will help me break my “news” addiction. I absolutely abhore most of the newscasters in this area ( whom I refer to as duschbag, dushbaggy, and dushbaggier) and the only large news media channel we get in our non-cable abode is Fox News (which we call “!#%^%$s News.”) This can be fun because we turn watching the news into something close to channeling Mystery Science 3000. So when we watch the news in the wee early morning hours over our yummy coffee I always ask myself why we keep doing it to ourselves. Besides the smug more-genuine-than-thou feeling I get from having a jaded sarcastic sense of humor, ever yellower teeth, graying non-glossy hair, and absolutely no gravitas, I’m not sure why I am compelled to turn it on. I’m not into the total withdrawl from society thing either, but I do sometimes covet the idea of living in a yurt far far away from the Fox Morning Team.

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