I know Emerson’s Essays have something to tell me. Unfortunately I do not understand them. Every two or three years I read one or two to see if my ability to comprehend them has improved. Last week when I tried to read “Self-Reliance” and “The Oversoul,” the words remained as confusing as ever.
Usually I follow up my failed attempts at Emerson by reading something by Thoreau. He is not light reading either, but easy in comparison. This time around I picked up Walden. The first thing I noticed is that this was to be the last time I would get to read the copy of Walden I’ve carried with me for over forty years. The glue in the binding finally gave out. With each turn of a page, all but the center hundred pages broke off from the rest of the book. When I finally got to “The sun is but a morning star,” I no longer had a book, but a tattered cover wrapped around sequentially ordered separate sheets of paper.
I have kept the same two copies of Walden and A Sand County Almanac with me since college, and now both are broken. The paper in Sand County crumbles at the touch, and the binding in Walden is brittle. I equate the demise of these books to the freewheel on my bicycle, which also needs replacing. My bike mechanic described it as “a badge of honor,” as freewheels only go bad on bicycles that have been seriously ridden.
I have a second copy of Walden and probably should have put the broken one aside and read the other. I would have, except the old copy has notes in the margins. At the same time I read Walden, I get to revisit all of my past readings. I am intrigued how much my reactions to certain passages vary over time. A paragraph that meant nothing to me in one reading jumps off the page in the next. Some of the scrawled comments I must have considered insightful when I was in my twenties now make no sense at all.
For example, the very first paragraph of Walden has Thoreau explaining that his two years alone at Walden Pond are over and he’s now back in Concord. He concludes the paragraph by writing, “I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” In the margin, I’d written, “Why only one extreme or the other? Can’t I live somewhere in between?” It is my handwriting, but I don’t remember ever saying or thinking that. Now I wonder where I was, both geographically and mentally, when I wrote it.
The phrase “sojourner in civilized life” caught my attention again this time around, but for an entirely different reason. I am in the middle of editing a book chapter where my choice between two words is important. The words I am considering are “wayfarer” and “sojourner.” Ordinarily I do not fixate on the distinctions between similar terms, but in this case, picking one word over the other affects the meaning of the entire chapter. Both wayfarer and sojourner refer to travelers, one emphasizing the mode of travel and the other the places along the way. A wayfarer is a person who travels by foot. A sojourner is a person on a long journey, but a journey with extended stopovers between periods on the move.
The discovery of “sojourner” in the opening paragraph of Walden does not necessarily mean it gets chosen for my chapter. If I was relying solely on Thoreau for terminology, I’d be using “saunterer” instead of either “wayfarer” or “sojourner.” “Saunterer” was Thoreau’s word of choice in the essay Walking. Still it is quite a coincidence I should come across such an unusual word as “sojourner” exactly at a time I am overthinking its use.