Thoughts on Thoreau and the iPad

If you have read Walden, then the thought of Henry David Thoreau’s pensive seclusion in his beloved forest would perhaps convince you to throw away your idealistic values of print publishing and purchase an iPad in hopes ofsaving a few trees. But is Walden Thoreau’s way of telling Americans to appreciate the forest, or that which the forest allows them to achieve?

In The Paris Review Daily, writer Dannie Zarate contemplates the act of reading Walden on an iPad, perhaps the most realistic example of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the art of reading, I suppose. Walden is Thoreau’s classic profession of the need for simplicity in modern life, but we should ask ourselves how Thoreau would define simplicity. Would simplicity, in Thoreau’s terms, be found in earth-saving electronics, or the paper-pressed ways of the past?


By reading literature electronically, we are sparing forestry and, therefore, saving it for personal satisfaction, much like the satisfaction Thoreau experienced on his wooded respite; this seems to be the ultimate goal within the pages of Walden, a book whose intention is, after all, the furtherance of Thoreau’s message, not that of the book itself. Indeed, it is only a book. It has no metaphysical associations, unlike the nature of the story inside. Any spiritual or philosophical power retained within Walden is simply a product of Thoreau’s insight, not the yellowed pages, so couldn’t we do away with the nonsense of physical books and resort to an electronic reader?

I’m afraid not. Yes, it is just a book, its words are able to be absorbed as well electronically as they are on paper, but because it is just a book, because it is not holy and has no metaphysical means, we need the physical element of its actuality to make the experience whole. I believe Thoreau himself puts it best by explaining, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” We must live fully, deliberately, and what better way than to experience this message of our own physicality than through a physical book?

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  1. Walden is definitely on my reading list for the year… And in hard copy. I can’t give them up, not to mention I don’t own an iPad. I’m looking forward to diving in, though I suspect I’ll read part in Manhattan and part in the woods of South Carolina.

    Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  2. Racquelle · · Reply

    Excellent perspective, and I heartily agree. There is much to be said for the tangible experience of a bound volume in hand, the waft of ink from within its pages, and the intentional, purposeful act of venturing from front cover to back as each new story between them unfolds and captures me. Of a fashion, it may perhaps be more simplistic if, as you mention, reading Walden on any one of a variety of devices. In my mind though, especially for such a respected and widely discussed literary classic, this would diminish the impact of its message–reducing it to little more than general Web browsing. I much prefer the definiteness of books. 🙂

  3. I read Walden in print 30 years ago and last year on my Kobo and can say there was no appreciable difference. In both cases, I found it simply brilliant.

    One contemporary author, however, who is perhaps lives out the spirit of Thoreau better than anybody is Wendell Berry. And Berry still plies his craft in pencil and paper, refusing to succumb to modern “conveniences.”

  4. Reading Walden on an iPad is an intriguing concept. 🙂 One ought to also read the story of Apple while camping out in the wilderness.

  5. I completely agree – nothing else compares to holding a book in your hands. I find that I speed-read anything I’ve ever tried to read on my iPad; swiping through and not really absorbing any of it.

    Great post!

  6. For a great take on what what Walden might teach us “moderns” with our beloved screens, I highly recommend William Powers’s fascinating “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” I think you’d really enjoy it! And thanks for checking out my blog!

  7. I agree, well put. Before I had only my personal prejudices to justify not buying an ereader, but this argument makes sense.

  8. sagarika · · Reply

    I would still read page by page, keeping a bookmark and get to the page where the words are nice…..rather then read it in any technology though it will safe the trees but by coffee will be a wastage without the Book! 🙂

  9. Read Walden (well most of it. Had to stop for academic reasons) and loved every one single bit of it. Truly the transcendentalist movement was one of the greatest movements in history and I think one of the most inspiring movements. I love the written word. I write all my stories, my novels, and poems on paper and I refuse to get an eReader. I may be taking a stand for the physical book, I may just be unknowingly trying to be different, but there’s a magic to reading from the physical book. Each page it’s own thing with different words like a new piece of art, never repeated twice, and a replica never the exact same, in its appearance or what you get from it when you read it. I love physical paper 🙂

  10. Thoreau spoke of simplicity. He also spoke against most industrial development — textile factories, the railroad — and yet that development was a necessary precursor to the ipad and much else we enjoy today. I have read Walden and certainly take Thoreau’s point about simplicity, but charge him with some inconsistency. After all, he borrowed an axe to build his cabin, but where did the axe come from? So an ipad may save some trees but cause the degradation of nature elsewhere in order to produce it.

  11. I’m in the middle of re-reading this book. I can’t help but imagine what Thoreau would have thought if he lived in this Internet era. If he would find our advances in technology as a step towards simplifying out lives or complicating them?

  12. excellent and thought-provoking

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