Today, Thoreau’s Walden is more relevant than ever, but it has been said that the book’s readership is declining. I’d like to change that.
When I first read Walden in 2014, it had a profound impact on me. Having gone through a period of career burnout followed by radical lifestyle change, I could see that Thoreau’s ideas around simplicity, consumerism, and busyness had an uncanny relevance to the challenges we face today. I shared my enthusiasm for the book with anyone willing to listen. But I kept having to couch my recommendations: “This is an incredible book, but the 19th century language is hard to digest at times. But stick with it, and you’ll be glad you did!” This situation bothered me. I didn’t want to keep telling people they should read Walden – ‘BUT’ …
While Walden has always been a challenging book, the evolution of language over the past two centuries has made it harder for modern readers to get into the text.
I’m creating a new hardcover adaptation of Walden that I hope will solve this problem.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. He wanted to create a quiet place where he could write, live simply in the thick of nature, and, in his own words, “suck all the marrow out of life.”
Thoreau lived on the Pond for about two years. Walden is the account of his experiment and reflections during that time. First published in 1854, Walden is a heady mix of memoir, philosophy, satire, and nature writing. In Walden, Thoreau observed that many people were spending their lives chasing after possessions and comforts that would never satisfy. He discovered that when we reject greed, simplify our lives, and pursue living in the present, a quiet revolution takes place inside the spirit and ripples outward into the lives of others.
For our own sake as well as future generations, it’s vital that we prevent Walden from becoming a collection of motivational posters for cubicles and suburban half-bathrooms.
“A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.“ — John Updike
The best books are timeless. Only the ongoing transformation of language leaves them behind. By shortening the revision cycle, we can ensure that literary classics like Walden remain evergreen. And given the speed at which our society is changing, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to find a better way to keep our greatest stories alive. That is why I’m creating a new adaptation of Walden, and why I’m doing it now.
I’ve partnered with Billy Merrell, an award-winning author, editor, and poet. He loves Thoreau and Walden in particular. With his help, every word of this adaptation will pass through a double filter. Together, I’m confident that we can breathe new life into this story before it’s too late.
This version will be neither abridged nor dumbed down. It will still read and feel like Thoreau; still set in the 1840s. I am not replacing telegraphs with emails, nor wagons with SUVs. None of the story will be omitted, and none of Thoreau’s ideas will be altered. I have no desire to impose my personal style on this work. Walden is dense, layered, and complex. That’s part of what makes it such a treasure, and any attempt at making it less complex would be a travesty. So when I talk about removing literary obstacles from Walden, I’m only referring to structures, syntax, and words that have fallen out of use since 1854.
A fair amount of the text has aged well, and I’m leaving those parts alone. Maximum clarity, optimum flow, and authenticity are the objectives behind all editorial decisions. Each word, phrase, and passage is being carefully weighed, and only changed if doing so will improve the reading experience. When in doubt I’m consulting the substantial body of scholarly research on Thoreau, and relying on Billy’s expertise.
As a work that’s in the public domain and copyright-free, anyone can change or redistribute this book in any way. But updating a literary classic is an audacious undertaking. Walden is a vital piece of literature, and Billy and I are taking every precaution to ensure that this new edition is a faithful adaptation.
What kinds of editorial decisions are we making?
Walden‘s first chapter, Economy, is by far the longest, comprising nearly 25% of the entire book. I’ve broken Economy into six short chapters, and left the other 17 chapter arrangements alone. I’ve also organized the book into four distinct parts, each with 5 or 6 short chapters. This yields 23 chapters of similar length. The content is presented in the same order as the original text, but the new structure creates a more sustainable pace and a better rhythm.
Below are a handful of before and after comparisons, with an original passage on the left and my updated version on the right.
During Thoreau’s day, it was commonplace for writers to use the word “men” when referring to humanity as a whole. The frequent reference to men – when he really means people – in the original text might be jarring for some readers. So wherever it makes sense, I’ve used “people” in place of “men,” “their dreams” vs. “his dreams,” and so on.
Readers who don’t share Thoreau’s familiarity with Latin and Greek literature may scratch their heads upon encountering certain references. Occasionally, Thoreau also refers to cultural details of his time that bear no meaning for today’s reader. When necessary, I’ve added annotations and margin notes to explain and provide source materials for these references.
Archaic words are replaced with contemporary equivalents. The same goes for place names, which are either updated to current names or, in rare instances, generic terms that are appropriate for Walden‘s global audience.
Beautiful imagery notwithstanding, sentences that clock in at 482 characters are pretty hard for modern readers to digest. When carved up into three sentences, this passage can be absorbed in a single read. And while conventicle is a cool word, “some secret meeting concealed by the shadows of night” does the job with less obscurity.
To learn more about our editorial process, read this post.
You can also dive right into the first six chapters of our adaptation on Medium.
A Timeless Design
A well-designed book is a visible reflection of the story, as well as its author’s persona and values. Thoreau was an early advocate for conservation, and sustainability is critical to this project. From cover cloth to paper and ink, all of this edition’s materials will be high-quality, archival, durable, and responsibly made. And I’ll be partnering with a printing company that uses 100% renewable energy.
This book will be illustrated by a wonderful artist named Brooks Salzwedel. His images depict natural environments divorced from any usual surrounding or place in time. He draws and paints onto layered sheets of transparent papers and casts them directly onto panels. Brooks will create five full-color illustrations, which include an image for each section and a map of Concord, Massachusetts in Thoreau’s day. Shown below is Brooks’s illustration forEconomy. He will also produce marbled patterns for the endpapers and pull-quote pages.
Below are just a few examples of past work from Brooks’s portfolio.
Walden is packed with powerful one-liners, and this edition features pull quotes sprinkled throughout, with each thought having a page to itself and typeset like large-scale poetry. This mixture of loud and quiet, negative space and density creates a pace that continually invites the reader to keep going, turn the page, venture a little further.
Typography is at the heart of this book’s design. Because the text is being updated to reflect today’s language, a similar approach to typography makes sense. After extensive research and testing, I decided against using fonts that are based on those from Thoreau’s day. Most of them felt either too stiff or too ornate for this project. I wanted something that was not only effortless to read, but also crisp, energetic, and timeless in its design. Since Thoreau was a poet, and his prose has a poetic ring to it, I wanted type with a lyrical feel. I found all of the above traits in theLyon type collection, designed by Kai Bernau for Commercial Type in 2009. Lyon’s optical sizes means that I can use a single font family for everything from the cover to marginalia. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!
Thoreau was a poet, but his best poetry was hidden in the midst of his prose. This edition features an all-new section at the end: A curated selection of Walden‘s most arresting passages, presented as prose poems and arranged in thematic pairs. By setting these selections in prose form rather than lineated verse, we can maintain the original format while highlighting each passage’s aesthetic.
A NATURAL FORM
A book about living simply in nature deserves natural proportions. I wanted Walden’s layout to have a harmonious tension between the page shape and the text column. The page shape and layout are based on a short pentagon proportion, found in many living things from roses to starfish. Finally, Thoreau was an intense and active man by all accounts. He often walked several miles just to visit a particular tree or stream. This asymmetric layout makes the words feel alive, as if they’re about to walk off the page and around the bend.
Design and Production Details
- Printed with renewable energy in Italy by Graphicom.
- Approximately 6.6″ × 9″ (167 × 228 mm).
- Around 300 pages (to be determined once editing is finished).
- Hardcover, cloth bound.
- Two color foil-stamping on the front, back, and spine.
- Durable Smyth sewn binding.
- Rounded spine for nearly-flat opening.
- Black head and tail bands.
- Black ribbon bookmark.
- Printed on archival, acid-free Munken Lynx uncoated paper, with a subtle warm white color that’s ideal for long-distance reading.
- Crisp typography for optimal reading.
- Endpapers printed with a full-color, hand-marbled pattern.
- Five full-color illustrations by Brooks Salzwedel, including a map of Concord in Thoreau’s day and images for each of the four main sections.
- Hand-marbled background textures for pull-quote pages.
- Two PMS spot colors.
- Signed and numbered.
What Inspired Us to Create this Project?
From Matt Steel
“This project was born of frustration. The first time I read Walden was on a tablet. The experience was anachronistic. I was reading a story about the reduction of worldly distractions on a device that was made for multitasking. The font was whatever was set as my default in the reading app. The text felt forgotten, like someone had dumped it down a digital hole and never gave it a second thought.
“I went on a hunt for a printed version that might do justice to the story. I couldn’t find an extant edition that, in my opinion, came close. This was unexpected, given that Walden is in the public domain and there are many editions floating around out there. So I thought, well … I’m a designer. Maybe I can do something about that! But a redesign would’ve only been cosmetic, and wasn’t a really compelling project in and of itself. I realized there needed to be another layer in order for this to be of lasting value. That’s when I had the idea to create a new version for modern readers.
“I’ve been working on the new Walden since June 2015, although the idea started to germinate around April. I left my job as a creative director at the end of October, and began working onWalden and the Kickstarter campaign full-time.”
From Billy Merrell
“When I read Matt’s adaptation of the first chapter, I was delighted to see how careful and deliberate the edits were. I found myself agreeing with the implicit reasoning behind everything. And (importantly) it seemed more readable than it had been the first time I encountered the same passages. Then we got to the question of how “man” would be used – with “people” taking the place of “men” when referring to humanity as a whole. I understand why dated rhetoric like that bothers people. Gendered language in general is being dismantled all around us in contemporary life. At some point I realized that modernizing the text and therefore making it more welcoming to a broader readership would be worth whatever it took, no matter the size of the bite.”
To find out more about the team behind the new Walden, read this Q&A with Matt, Billy, and Brooks.
1. As stated above, Walden is more relevant than ever, and I want to give it maximum visibility. I wanted this to be a community-driven project, and Kickstarter is the best platform.
2. The traditional publishing route is time-consuming, involving agents and many other people who can say no, maybe, or you’re crazy, please go away. I wanted to bring this to market more quickly and simply. As Thoreau says, “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get under way.”
3. If this campaign does well, it will make it that much easier for me to get to work on the next adapted classic. I’m envisioning a whole library of these books!
Why Do We Need to Raise $104,000?
The lion’s share of our budget will go toward printing and shipping 2,000 books. That particular quantity is in the sweet spot as far as cost per unit vs. the budget range we can reasonably hope to raise. (Incidentally, the first edition of Walden was 2,000 books.) Another costly expense are the book materials. We are using some of the best paper, cloth, and binding methods available. While I’ve been working as a volunteer, I’d like to pay my collaborators for their excellent work. Plus, there are Kickstarter and payment processing fees, and we added a small cushion for unexpected costs. We put a lot of effort into reaching this break-even budget amount, which is reflected in the goal.
Meet the Team
Creator: Matt Steel, [email protected]_lettrs
Matt is a St. Louis based designer who writes, a father of three, and a husband of one. He thrives on giving good stories the form and visibility they deserve. Since 2003, Matt has worked as a graphic designer, entrepreneur, essayist, and most recently creative director. From 2009–2013, Matt was the founder and principal of Metagramme, an award-winning design studio. In 2013, Steel co-founded Grain Inc, a full-service creative firm in St. Louis. Until 2015, he served as the creative director of Grain’s design team. Matt has worked on brand identities, books, collateral, websites, and apps for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to startups.
Co-editor: Billy Merrell, talkinginthedark.com
Billy is an author, poet, and editor. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his husband, the writer Nico Medina. In 2003, at the age of 21, he published his first book of poetry, Talking in the Dark with Scholastic’s PUSH imprint. In 2006, he co-edited (with David Levithan) The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, which received a Lambda Literary Award. Recently, Billy’s poems and translations have appeared in NADA’s Contemporary Poetry Zine, Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide,Guernica, Gulf Coast, and Brooklyn’s Slice Magazine. From 2006 to 2013, Billy served as front end developer for Poets.org, providing web analysis and content strategy for the Academy of American Poets website.
Illustrator: Brooks Salzwedel, brookssalzwedel.com
Brooks Salzwedel’s works depict natural environments divorced from any usual surrounding or place in time. Whether drawing and painting onto various sheets of transparent papers and casting these directly onto panels, or placing the works into small curios like vintage tin boxes or corroded pipe ends, his cautiously shaded compositions are balanced between a removal of time and chaos. In 2015, Brooks was chosen as Denali National Park’s visual Artist-in-Residence. He also won Los Angeles Metro poster project for 2016 in which his work will be displayed on many buses, trains and metro stations around Los Angeles, CA. Brooks’s work has been displayed at prominent institutions worldwide, including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2010); MOCA, Los Angeles (2005); San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA (2009). Brooks lives and works in Los Angeles.
Campaign management: Crowdsourceress Alex Daly and Vann Alexandra,vannalexandra.com
Vann Alexandra is a creative services agency that gets projects financed through crowdfunding with a 100% success rate. The company’s founder has been dubbed the “Crowdsourceress.” Clients include Neil Young, Oscar-winning and Emmy-nominated filmmakers, citizen investigative journalist Brown Moses, New York Times bestselling authors, Pentagram designers, and best-selling girl group of all time, TLC.
Video: Hannah Radcliff & Edward Calvey, hannahradcliff.com
Hannah is a filmmaker and entrepreneur. Since 2008, she has traveled the world as a camera operator for a major TV network, producing and shooting a Midwest Emmy award-winning regional television show, inventing filmmaking gadgets and honing her skills as a cinematographer on short and feature length indie films. Hannah lives in St. Louis with her partner, Edward.
Music: To the Trees
To the Trees is the musical collaboration of Bryan and Ariadne Steel. Bryan has been writing and recording music since 2000. From 2009–2012, he wrote, sang, and performed with Dear Vincent, a St. Louis based band. Their eclectic style synthesized elements of folk, pop, and indie, along with moments of Spanish/Gypsy/World influence. Ariadne has been writing and recording music since the mid 90s. Her solo project, Ayung Kyung, is electronic folk. Bryan and Ariadne met through mutual friends, eventually writing and performing together in Dear Vincent. Bryan and Ariadne live in Charlotte, NC with their son Gus.
This project would have been impossible without my wife’s indomitable spirit, constant encouragement, and complete trust. I’m also grateful for the prayers and support of my entire family. Thank you to Billy Merrell, Brooks Salzwedel, Hannah Radcliff, Edward Calvey, and Alex Daly for not only believing in this project, but also joining me in making it happen and bringing your creativity and expertise to bear. Thank you to Michael Bierman, Kevin Kelly, Corinne H. Smith, Dave Anderson, Mike Going, Peleg Top, Josh Hager, Jason Tasso, and Ariana Schopp for their support, friendship, and wisdom. To Deanna Kuhlmann Leavitt, thank you for teaching me about texture, pacing, and how to continually invite the reader to go just a little further.
Although we’ve never met, I’m grateful for the influence that Robert Bringhurst and Gerard Unger have had on me as a designer. Their texts on typography, reading, and book design have been indispensable in the development of this project.
And if you’ve read this far, thank YOU! I can’t wait for you to hold this book in your hands.