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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

10 Transcendental Facts About Walden

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Walden is one of the most quotable books in American literature. Henry David Thoreau filled the book with gems like, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Or, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Or that old chestnut, “Simplify, simplify.” Of course, Thoreau’s account of his time in the woods is much more than just fodder for motivational posters—it’s a work of transcendentalist philosophy that shaped how people see the natural world today.

1. BEFORE GOING TO THE WOODS, THOREAU STARTED A 300-ACRE FOREST FIRE.

One windy day in 1844, Thoreau went fishing with a friend. On the way back, the duo stopped by the water in order to cook a meal. A spark from their campfire set a nearby patch of dry grass ablaze, resulting in a massive blaze spanning 300 acres. The fire was put out before it reached the town of Concord, but for years after that, people mocked Thoreau, calling him “woods burner.”

2. A FRIEND'S LETTER SUGGESTED THOREAU BUILD THE CABIN. 

via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Although publicly he claimed otherwise, Thoreau felt lost. Wracked with guilt and struggling to overcome his damaged reputation, he tried to plot out his next steps. His friend, the poet William Ellery Channing, wrote to him in a letter: “I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened "Briars"; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. … Eat yourself up; you will eat nobody else, nor anything else.”

Four months later, he was living in a cabin in the woods. His experiment was to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

3. RALPH WALDO EMERSON OWNED WALDEN POND.

via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The poet and fellow transcendentalist thinker was also Thoreau’s champion throughout his lifetime, giving him shelter and work when he needed assistance, and helping him get published. Because of their bond, Emerson’s land beside Walden Pond was a natural place for Thoreau to try his experiment.

In Thoreau’s time, the local forests had been depleted by Concord’s rapid growth, the construction of the railroad, and the expansion of agriculture. Emerson purchased the land surrounding Walden Pond in an attempt to save the lot's trees. (Today, thanks to reforestation efforts, there are more trees around the Massachusetts town than there were in the 1840s.)

4. THE CABIN COST HIM LESS THAN $30.

Thoreau borrowed an axe and chopped down pine trees to clear a place for his house. Then he bought a shanty from another man and recycled the boards, pulling out nails and letting them bleach in the sun. He enlisted friends, including Emerson, Channing, and Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, to raise the frame and set the roof. The result was a shingled cabin, 10 feet wide by 15 feet long, boasting two windows, a garret, closet, and fireplace. Behind the house was an outhouse and a woodshed made from scraps. Thoreau used the pond as his bathtub and the spring for his drinking water. He calculated that the construction of his cabin cost him $28.12-1/2.

5. THOREAU WAS NOT A HERMIT.

Though he escaped to the woods in search of a simpler life, Thoreau wasn't trying to drop out of society. Far from it. Walden Pond was less than two miles from Concord, and Thoreau often visited family and friends, sometimes staying with them for days. He also played host. “It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain,” he wrote. “I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.”

6. HE LIVED IN THE CABIN TWO YEARS, TWO MONTHS, AND TWO DAYS.

via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

Although Walden is divided into four seasons, Thoreau lived in the cabin for twice that long. He planted a garden and lived off fruit, vegetables, and whatever he could gather from the woods. His days were spent tending his garden, chopping wood, swimming, rowing, fishing in the lake, playing flute, and meditating. He also wrote in his journal every day and completed his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

7. IT TOOK THOREAU NINE YEARS TO WRITE HIS MASTERPIECE.

After leaving the cabin, Thoreau went through draft after draft of Walden. It finally hit shelves in 1854. His journal entry that day said simply, “Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.” In the first year, the book sold 1,744 of the initial 2,000 copies—a vast improvement over A Week's measly 294—although it didn’t sell out completely until 1859.

8. THOREAU INSPIRED THE CONSERVATION MOVEMENT. 

Thoreau was one of the first major thinkers to write about conservation issues. One of his disciples was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, who in 1903 convinced Theodore Roosevelt to make Yosemite the first national park. 

9. THE EAGLES' DON HENLEY HELPED SAVE WALDEN POND FROM DEVELOPERS. 

In 1989, rock star Don Henley was watching the news when he learned that 68 acres of Walden Woods was about to be bulldozed for an office complex and condominium. Henley, a Thoreau fan, launched the Walden Woods Project, a fundraising group whose aim was to stop development. Membership included everyone from Meryl Streep and John Kerry, to Bonnie Raitt and Alex Haley. To date, 80% of Walden Woods is protected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Walden Woods Project, and others.

10. THEY'RE MAKING A WALDEN VIDEO GAME.

The National Endowment for the Arts gave University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab a $40,000 grant to create a video game based on the book. Walden, A Game is a first person simulation of Thoreau’s time in the woods. Users can “follow in his footsteps, surviving in the woods by finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter and clothing.” No word if you can stop by Emerson’s house for tea.

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An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
Amazon

Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

Find It: Amazon

3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

Cover of Its All Relative
Simon & Schuster

What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

Find It: Amazon

5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

Find It: Amazon

6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
Amazon.com

An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
Amazon

At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
Amazon

A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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