Review: A Sand County Almanac

Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round RiverA Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

Nature is refreshing. Even a short walk in a park can powerfully clear one’s head. For whatever reason—perhaps because our ancestors lived in trees—surrounding oneself with birches and maples produces in nearly everyone feelings of warmth, comfort, and peace. And for many people, nature is more than refreshing: it is awe-inspiring, even divine. Natural environments are, for some, more uplifting than cathedrals. Emerson might have captured this strain of mystical naturalism best:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. … Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being flow through me; I am part or particle of God.

I myself have had comparable experiences in the woods. Yet both Emerson and I are pure amateurs next to Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was a pioneering conservationist and forester. He was also a superlative writer, and in this brief book he covers a lot of ground. He begins with a month-by-month account of Sand County, a poor farming region in Wisconsin. This was my favorite section, since Leopold’s sensitivity to his environment is nearly superhuman. He has a keen sense of both the history of environments—how they change with the seasons, how they have evolved through time, how they have been warped by human activity—and the close-knit interdependence of ecosystems, how each organism shapes and is shaped by every other organism, forming a perfect whole.

As a stylist, he manages to be lyrical and poetic while sticking scrupulously to what he sees and hears. His sentences are short, his diction simple, and yet he manages to evoke a densely complex ecosystem. This is because, unlike Emerson or I—and more so than Thoreau—Leopold really understood his environment. He can name every species of plant, and tell what soils they prefer and what plants they like as neighbors. He can identify every bird by its call, and knows where it roosts, what it eats, when it migrates, and how it mates. Scratches on a tree tell him a deer is nearby, his antlers fully grown; the footprints in snow tell him a skunk has passed, and how recently.

All this is described with exquisite sensitivity, but no romantic embellishment. To borrow a phrase from E.B. White, Leopold had discovered “the eloquence of facts.” And, like White, Thoreau, and Emerson, his writing has a pleasing, folksy, rambling, ambling quality, wherein each sentence is nailed to the next one at an oblique angle.

In the rest of the book, Leopold puts forward a new philosophy of conservation. This train of thought reminded my very much of another book I read recently, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jane Jacobs explains how top-down approaches to city planning killed neighborhood vitality. Just so, when Leopold was a young man in the forestry service, he participated in the policy of removing predators—bears, wolves, and mountain lions—to protect livestock and to increase the supply of hunting animals, like deer. When hunting became necessary to control population, parks began building more and more roads to make access easier; and meanwhile the exploding deer population prevented new trees from growing. Thus the park was encroached upon by cars, and the ecosystem thrown off balance—in the same way that blindly building highways and public housing can destroy neighborhoods.

Leopold was, I believe, one of the first to popularize the idea that ecosystems act like one giant organism, with a delicate balance of cooperating and competing components. Every healthy ecosystem is a harmony that cannot be disturbed without unpredictable results. To again borrow from Jacobs, an ecosystem—like a city economy or a human brain—is an example of “organized complexity.” Thus ecosystems baffle attempts to understand them by thinking of their components separately, as a collection of individual species, or even statistically, as the average behavior of interchangeable parts. Complexity like this tends to be a product of historical growth, with each distinct component making minute adjustments to each other in a dense network of influence. Leopold doesn’t say this in so many words; but he does something even more impressive: he illustrates this quality using short anecdotes and schoolboy vocabulary.

His most philosophic contribution to the environmental movement is what he called a “land ethic.” Previous arguments for conservation were couched in terms of expediency: how national parks and nature reserves could benefit us economically. Leopold believed that this approach was too narrow; since hunting lodges and mechanized farms are always more profitable in the short term, this would eventually result in the destruction of wild ecosystems and the disappearance of species. We needed to move beyond arguments of expediency and see the land—and everything on it—as valuable for its own sake. Leopold believed that we had an ethical duty to preserve ecosystems and all their species, and that the aesthetic reward of wild nature was more valuable than dollars and cents could measure.

I want to go along with this, but I thought that Leopold was unsatisfyingly vague in this direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have an ethical duty to preserve nature; this is quite a claim, and requires quite a bit of argument. Further, aesthetic value seems like a slender reed to rest on. For every Emerson and Thoreau, there is a Babbitt whose tastes are not so refined. To his credit, Leopold does argue that a great part of conservation must consist in elevating the public taste in nature. Otherwise, conservation will consist of little more than the government using tax dollars to purchase large swaths of land. Individuals must see the value in wilderness and actively participate in preserving it. But molding tastes is no easy thing; and, more importantly, if we are to do so, there must be compelling reasons to do it.

The most compelling reasons for conservation are, I believe, expediency—but expediency in the widest sense. The difference between folly and wisdom is not that the former is preoccupied with expediency and the latter higher things; it is that wisdom considers what is expedient on a grander scale. Leopold comes close to making this same argument. He was, for example, ahead of his time in being deeply concerned about extinction. Every time a species disappears it is an irreplaceable loss; and considering that our medicine partly depends on new discoveries, extinctions may have terrible consequences for us down the line. (I saw a PBS special the other day about scientists trying to discover new antibiotics by shifting through raw soil.) Since Leopold’s day—long before Silent Spring or An Incovenient Truth—we have learned plenty more ways that environmental destruction can be equivalent to self-destruction.

Carping aside, this is a deeply satisfying book: lyrical, descriptive, educational, and innovative. Leopold realized what Orwell also realized: that winning converts requires both argument and propaganda. He does not only argue for the value of nature, but he really captures the beauty of unspoiled environments and serves it up for his readers’ consideration. We are not only convinced, but seduced. This is propaganda in its noblest form—propaganda on behalf of nature.

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The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.

The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.

After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.

For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.

Ventilator
Trail and ventillator

The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Weir
Sleepy Hollow Weir

In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.

Sluice Gate
Sluice gate

Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.

Tunnel Interior
Inside the Aqueduct

Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.

Spillway
Sing Sing Kill spillway

From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.

Greenway
Sing Sing Kill greenway

The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.

High Bridge Ground View
Original High Bridge arches

The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)

Water Tower
Water tower

In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)

High Bridge Top
High Bridge

As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.

The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.

Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)

Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.

Croton Dam

For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.

Croton Dam Side

As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.

It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”


These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.

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Review: Walden

Review: Walden

Walden & Civil DisobedienceWalden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau’s solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “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.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he’s an insufferable teenager.

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Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.


Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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