Saturday, January 21, 2012

Five notable books on the art of living

Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, which offers instruction and inspiration on the important questions of everyday life. He advises organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change, and has been named by the Observer as one of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers.

One of five notable books on the art of living he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
by Henry David Thoreau

Well, let’s draw on it now, beginning with Thoreau’s Walden. Will you briefly introduce the book to our readers?

Well, in 1845 the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau went out to live in the woods of western Massachusetts. He lived two years there, and a few years later he wrote a book about his experiences called Walden; or, Life in the Woods. It’s an account of how he went about the practicalities of simple living. It’s about how he built his house – a log cabin – with his own hands, grew his own food and lived a subsistence lifestyle. And it’s about what he did when he was there, like observing nature and swimming in Walden Pond.

I think Thoreau was one of the great masters of the art of simple living. Of course, he didn’t live in complete isolation. Every few days he walked into the town of Concord, to read the papers and have a chat with his mum. He was very open about that. But he wrote extremely eloquently about the advantages of paring down life to its essentials – of doing more than getting caught up in the commercialisation and industrialisation that was going on around him.

Which is a lesson as relevant to our lives today as it was in the 19th century.

Even more relevant now, I think. In the era of climate change, there’s increasingly a move to cut back on our carbon emissions. Thoreau would have totally fitted into that. He would have looked around today and said: If you want to live carbon-lite, a less high-consumption lifestyle, you’ll see plenty of ideas in my book for turning away from material culture – not depriving yourself, but embracing the beauties of nature and of free time, the ultimate luxury.

Thoreau’s experience in Walden taught him that he could live extremely cheaply and he didn’t have to work very much. In fact, he said that he could work as a part-time surveyor for about six or seven weeks and have enough to live on at Walden Pond for a year.

He also talks about not striving purely for ambition’s sake. What does that say about our modern obsession with bettering our material situation?

Thoreau was always sceptical of what people called “civilisation” – accumulating material goods, moving into a bigger house. He viewed those things as burdens. He saw that having a massive mortgage was just going to tie you down and limit your freedom. Somewhat romantically, he thought you’d be much better off living in a wigwam, like the indigenous native Americans.

Thoreau famously said: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” That was a message that he very much wanted to spread, at least through his own example. He saw the stress faced by farmers around him, who were trying to pay off their mortgages and improve the material quality of their lives. And he thought that it was much more luxurious and enjoyable to sit in the doorway of his cabin and listen to the birds sing, than to try to earn enough money to buy a new sofa.

Yet surely he doesn’t mean we should all follow his example, and give it all up to build ourselves cabins in the woods alongside his?

Thoreau was an extraordinarily realistic person. I don’t think he actually thought that everyone should live in the woods. What he was really saying was that wherever we live – even in urban society – we can simplify our lives. And that way, in purely practical terms, we probably don’t have to work as hard to support our lifestyle. And if you don’t have to work as much, you have more free time. Free time, for him, was the ultimate freedom.

I think he would say to us now: Even if you are living in a high-rise flat in Paris or Berlin or New York, if you simplify your life then you can learn that it may be more enjoyable to take a walk in the park than to drive an expensive car around. That’s something that everyone can do without having to go and live in the woods. So Thoreau has a very realistic message for us, especially now that a third of people feel time-stressed or time-poor. What they really want is the freedom to not be tied down to jobs they don’t want to do or debts they wish they didn’t have.

My favourite quote is near the end, when he writes: “If a man does not keep pace with his companion, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

That’s right, and I think that idea of walking to the beat of your own drummer is a vital lesson for the art of living. What he’s saying there is that we don’t need to conform; in a way we need to break the rules. There have always been inspiring figures in history who have done that, and Thoreau is one of them. Mary Wollstonecraft is another – she became an author in an age [the 18th century] when no women did so, went to revolutionary France, had a child out of wedlock and so on. She was walking to the beat of her own drummer, and I find that personally inspiring.

From everyday things like rejecting the culture of watching TV for three hours a day and locking your TV in the cupboard, to maybe leaving your well-paid job to do something which embodies your values more, we need to walk to the beat of our own drummer if we want to live a more experimental and adventurous life.
Read about another book on the list.

Walden is on Brad Leithauser's five best list of dispatches from the natural world.

--Marshal Zeringue