Henry David Thoreau wrote his journal between the years 1837 and 1861--so about a quarter of a century. He died only aged forty-four and his journal was the defining work of his life.
Were I suggest to someone what they should read, which to me ought to be work that presses into a person, alters how they see the world and themselves, Thoreau's journal is near the top of my list. You shouldn't leave this world before you've partook of certain things that people have created. Thoreau's journal is one of those things. There are inexpensive, single-volume abridged editions, and also the fourteen-volume unabridged set. The latter totals two million words.
I was thinking about that recently because as was noted a while ago, this journal, which I call the Many Moments More journal, reached 2.35 millions words a few weeks back. It was launched in June 2018, which makes it a little less than five years old, or five percent of a century. It's the writing that I do in between my proper writing, and as such is a fraction of what I produce, a sideline pursuit, but an important one for many reasons, and also an intentional work of literature.
Someone wrote me a year or two ago to stump for Thoreau's journals, by saying that to really know the man, they were what one had to read.
I think that's true. But I also think it's secondary. How much value is there in reading a work in order to know one human? The value goes up, of course, depending on the human. The significance of their story. The greater the depth and range of what they are about. The cast and the quality of their mind, and the further removed that mind is from the average mind.
But what I would say is that that's not how you'd want to sell Thoreau's journals and it does them an unintentional disservice. It's not how I'd want this journal of mine to be sold, nor do I think it'd be a wise way to proceed.
What you have to have in one person is many people. We need to see something more than a person, and that is the human quality that goes beyond one life. We need to see what a human can be as they always continue to learn and grow, to become more aware, and what that means insofar as it represents human possibility and how it posits human potential.
That's a lot bigger than "This is what so and so was truly like." Who that person is is in there--but it's not what makes a work lasting--for that, it must transcend. It must be human more than it is "person," if that makes sense.
Thoreau built his other writings off of his journal. I believe he thought of the journal, though, as his untrammeled writing. He didn't write fiction, of course, so his journal became that "freer" enterprise to him. I think he was most himself as with it, and that self was the human spirit, in addition to being that of one man.
No one was really like Thoreau. In recent, years, there have been attempts to use that against him. We now tend to attack--or wish to attack--people who have standards and purpose, as well as expectations for their growth and follow through. It's very easy to say they are judgmental or intolerant or some such buzz word. One gets in trouble now just for being sane and clear-eyed. Or in trouble, that is, if one allows this to happen.
But for all of his demonstrable individuality, for all of his distinctiveness, which we see throughout Thoreau's journals--and throughout this one--it is the scope of universality, and the work's universality, that is the salient aspect. That is the trick--to create a record of a unique person, but for that record to hold a place--many places--for anyone and everyone to locate and learn about themselves and the world we all share.