Walden for the 21st century – Kickstarter plan to update Thoreau

Walden Pond

A Kickstarter project is seeking support to publish an ‘updated’ version of Thoreau’s Walden. I’ve backed it, because I like the idea of helping people read the book by making the language more accessible.

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Typically, the feedback has not been positive with charges of dumbing down. But what’s more important, that a book remains unread by all but a few, or that its message is more widely understood? I have several ‘translations’ of texts written in other languages: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, several Chinese novels. And in Italy, Russia and China many people have translations of Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Agatha Christie. And, I’m guessing, Thoreau.

I also have, somewhere, a copy of Romeo and Juliet with the original on one side and an ‘updated’ version on the other for use by schoolchildren. This approach has a long heritage.

Nobody is replacing the original. And they’re not saying the new version is better than the original. It’s just a way of making it more accessible.

In the days before recorded music, major orchestral works were transcribed for piano or chamber groups so they could be performed at home. Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’ve heard a chamber version of Mahler’s fourth symphony written by the composer himself. This isn’t dumbing down, it’s levelling up.

There’s no point in treasuring cultural artefacts if in doing so you restrict others from experiencing them.

The Guardian reported on the project:

The poet Robert Frost found that “in one book … [Thoreau] surpasses everything we have had in America”. But according to John Updike, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset … that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible”. Now the designer and writer Matt Steel is setting out to address Walden’s declining readership, with a new edition of the public domain text that adapts Thoreau’s 19th-century language for modern readers. Steel launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for his project on Tuesday, aiming to raise $104,000 (£72,000) to print 2,000 cloth hardback, illustrated copies of his adapted version. The finished book is due out in spring 2017 if the campaign is successful. I want to shorten the distance between 1854 and today so that the lyrical beauty of this excellent text can shine “While widely quoted, Walden is rarely read anymore, and our society’s familiarity with the story is fading,” Steel said. “My theory is that there’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s the 19th-century language that’s problematic. By creating an updated version of Walden, I want to create more opportunities for other people’s lives to be enriched by this book.”

I think that’s a noble aim.

Sadly, I just discovered that because of the negative feedback, Matt has decided to produce an annotated version of the book instead. I think that’s a mistake. Annotated books are for scholars – valuable but not exactly accessible to the lay reader. I hope he changes his mind again and returns to the project people backed in the first place.

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