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Walden for the science fiction adventurer

Looking for something to read while the libraries are closed, I spotted Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on my bookshelf. I’m sure mountains have already been written about the book so I won’t try to review or analyse it here, but I wanted to reflect on how Thoreau’s adventure compares with mine.

Thoreau says he wanted to “live deliberately”, which I take to mean making careful observations and considered decisions about one’s life, rather than simply going along with whatever might be the usual manner of living in the society in which one was born (Thoreau famously describes the lives of most nineteenth-century American men as being ones of “quiet desperation”). In deciding to reduce my working hours and spend more time on projects of my own devising, I’m living with a degree of deliberation that I didn’t have while working nine to fiveā€”but nor am I living by my own wits in a cabin built by myself.

Of course my paid work allows for quite a bit of deliberation in its way: in various paid positions I’ve been able to determine the course of research within very broad limits, determine the content of courses in software development and mathematics, and make engineering decisions about how software ought to be design. But this is not “living” as such, or at least only a modest portion of it: I also wanted to deliberate on the degree to which I am a researcher vs a teacher vs a software developer vs a writer, how to divide up my day between various paid and unpaid projects, and how much professional work to do at all.

My actual level of deliberation varies somewhat with the amount of paid work I do: in recent months I’ve sometimes felt as if I did nothing but respond to e-mail while at other times I’ve found myself scratching around for a project that seems like the right one to do. I imagine Thoreau experienced the same fluctuations to at least some degree: he has to sow and reap his crops at certain times; sometimes he has visitors and sometimes he doesn’t; and sometimes the weather is good for walking and other times it isn’t. But both of us have made and largely kept to broad decisions about what overall proportion of our time should be committed to each activity.

Thoreau spends a bit of time at the beginning of his adventure working out how much money he needs to survive, concluding that it isn’t very much, at least for someone with the desires Thoreau has, and without any dependents to support. My expenses are much larger, partly because I have far more modern conveniences than him and partly because it’s simply more expensive to live in modern urban Australia than in nineteenth-century rural America, but they’re still far less than what I can earn from full-time professional work.

One of Thoreau’s particular hobbies is to observe his local area. I’ve tried to take an interest in my local area for as long as I can remember, albeit that my local area has been largely made up of streets, houses, shops, and public parks, and not so many ponds, trees, and woodchucks. Perhaps I could write just as much about the local streets and shops if I wanted to, but this would be somewhat outside my usual oeuvre.

Overall, I don’t take the point to be that we should all live in a cabin by a pond growing our own food; Thoreau himself left the cabin after a couple of years. The point is to make conscious decisions about whether to live in the cabin or in a modern apartment; to live in the city, the suburbs, or the country; what to do for oneself and what to buy from someone else; and so on. Maybe I’ll eventually move on, too, but for now I feel I’m doing what I wanted to do.

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