I’ve been reading “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau for quite a while. It’s not that I’m a slow reader, but it’s the kind of thing I like to just read a chapter at a time. As I think about that chapter, I’ll read other things.
It’s very interesting and I’ve found many quotable quotes withal, even though I haven’t always agreed with Thoreau. And I don’t think I would have enjoyed meeting him in person, but I could be wrong about that.
One thing that keeps striking me about the book, though, is that it probably couldn’t get published today. Or, if published, it’s hard to imagine it selling. Go look at the experts on selling books and you’ll often find them saying that prose needs to be sharp, without extraneous words, and with short sentences. This is so the book will grab the reader because the reader is, in their estimation, not too bright.
“Walden” on the other hand contains some single sentences that are longer than the post-game write-up of a baseball game. They are sentences that don’t just run-on, they are sentences that run on and on and on, coming to conclusions that not even the most prescient of readers would have seen coming when the sentence started. Like his long walks Thoreau enjoyed taking in the woods, seemingly without destination but for the sheer joy of experiencing the travel, his sentences often meander this way and that, strung together with semi-colons, commas and whatever you call the extended dash until eventually arriving. That sentence may seem like it needed another word or two, specifying where Thoreau’s sentences wound up, but his don’t always wind up anywhere.
I tend to write in short sentences myself, and usually in short paragraphs (that last one notwithstanding), but I bristle when told by some expert that this is the way it “needs” to be done. I don’t think that’s right. I think the sentence, the paragraph, and the story decide themselves how long they should be.
(But what do I know? I’m selling fewer copies these days than Thoreau and he’s been dead for quite some time while other writers who do follow the modern advice are selling millions of copies.)