In 1845 at the age of 28 Henry David Thoreau built himself a wendy house in the woods South of the town of Concord Massachusetts. He lived there for two years and paid attention to the natural world that surrounded him. Purists get snitty about his achievement in the same way that regular people get shouty at vegetarians for wearing leather shoes. "Oh it was only half an hour from his folks' place and he took the laundry home every weekend." ". . . and he bought supplies at the store before he walked back to his hut" "He had visitors! not much of a hermit was he?". He wrote up his experiences in Walden, or Life in the Woods, which finally got published in 1854, which was tribbed on The Blob this summer. Indeed Walden the book is rather like a blog. It is a book much quoted but rarely read and used to project unreader's anxieties and certainties onto a backdrop of second-growth New England woods. But it is what it is: one man's attempt, which may not be exactly consonant with yours, to make sense of his life. I think, I believe, that young men and women need to act on Thoreau's opening sentiment before they let the life into which they were born dictate what happens to them. “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." If they don't they are likely to join “The mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation."
Is a book, a novel, a manifesto by the behaviorist BF Skinner. Skinner spent a large part of his life trying to understand how humans and other animals operate. He was a reductionist, knowing that trying to make sense of the blooming buzzing confusion that is the external world is difficult so needs to be simplified. Actually for most of us, blooming buzzing confusion descibes our interior world as well. But not for Skinner. He carried out numerous experiments on rats in cages and clocked the number of times they pressed a lever when offered good or bad things. His findings were reliable and reproducible and we now know rather a lot about how rats behave when their world is reduced to a plastic box proportionately the size of Thoreau's hut. Skinner's confusion then dropped away and he became certain that what happened in the box could be extrapolated to more complex situations. Up to a point, that is true, but his vision of the world, described in his Utopian novel Walden Two, is rather creepy. It's a long time since I read it, but if you try to grasp things like happiness and productivity what stays in the hand is a dead thing choked by the clumsy process of measurement: all that is worth living for has drained out between our clutching fingers. Oscar Wilde: "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." Me, I've never seen what connexion Skinner felt there was between his book and Thoreau's, but I bet he was certain-sure that the two were linked.