For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupy in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain…. I can see what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Oct. 28 1853


The Conundrum of Affluence

In 1958, when economist John Kenneth Galbraith appropriately described the United States as ‘The Affluent Society,’ 9.5 percent of U.S. households had air conditioning, about 4 percent had dishwashers, and fewer than 15 percent had more than one car. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s successful bid to replace Jimmy Carter was based on the widespread sense that people were suffering economically, the percentage of homes with air conditioning had quintupled, the percentage with dishwashers had increased more than 700 percent and the percentage with two or more cars had about tripled. Yet, despite the astounding economic growth — despite owning more of the gadgets, machines and appliances thought to constitute ‘the good life’ — Americans felt significantly less well-off than they had twenty-two years earlier.

— Paul Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence

This little paragraph, encountered in a book not about economics, has been floating about in my mind, stoking a bit of turmoil in my head, seeking a way out.

Is accumulating things really the same thing as “living the good life”? Should the fact that so many of us have accumulated so many things contribute to our sense of well-being? Or is the accumulation of so many things in part responsible for our sense of ill-being? I certainly am not in the privileged position of the austere unworldly prophet, setting out to preach to others, to criticize them for their choices in life. I have much, and have no plan to sell all and move to a commune. But this ever-growing dissatisfaction that I see around me, this distressing feeling that no matter how much there is it’s not enough, that no matter how much there is there is really not anything, seems to be overwhelming, and I humbly seek some small explanation.

The summer of 1968 was another era, perhaps another universe entirely. The United States was in conflict with itself, the young people of Western Europe were breaking loose from their traditional roles, and Czechoslovakia had declared itself a free society in defiance of the Soviet Union. And in the midst of all this I happened to visit France. My stay in Paris was in late summer, after the French student agitation had slowed, but tensions were still apparent. One afternoon I chanced to be walking on Boulevard Saint-Germain approaching the Universitè when a row of shiny black vans stopped suddenly and black-caped gendarmes with riot gear poured out onto the sidewalk about a block ahead of me. I decided it was a good time to cross the street. But later that day I had an odd conversation with a French businessman, a man perhaps fifteen or twenty years younger then than I am now. He was disgusted by the upheavals of middle-class youth who, he said, had been given everything, the finest things of life. Why, he asked, did they reject all these fine things, choosing instead to live in apparent poverty and rebellion. Why were they so ungrateful. I don’t think I understood it all then, or now, either, and I certainly didn’t know how to explain to him that perhaps these young people found the “fine things”, the material goods of 20th century Western culture, to be wanting in some way, that perhaps they were looking for something more fulfilling.

But I don’t know. I don’t know if the turmoil of the 1960s is relevant to the turmoil of the 2010s. Events in the Arab world a few years past seemed reminiscent in some ways to the early days of ’60s protest, of the excitement of “Prague Spring” before it was so brutally terminated. But events in the United States around the same time had a different feeling to me. The shared feelings, the idea that people need to look out for each other, seemed to have been reversed. Instead of asserting the importance of protecting every person, of encouraging all to succeed, some protests seem to demand that only some succeed and the rest can go starve.

I thought once upon a time that people thought that we are “all in the same boat”, and that each of us is responsible for the survival of all. Now the mood of many seems to be “I’m in my lifeboat by myself — you stay out of it”.

At the same time, I see the actions of Black Lives Matter and the student movement rising from the despair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, and some small hope arises that that spirit hasn’t been lost entirely.

Encouragement to Run

This runner pausing to tie a shoe appeared a few months ago along Pike Street, near its intersection with Chestnut, in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Lacing up the Running Shoes

Lacing up the Running Shoes

“Lace Up” is unsigned, but I think the artist’s name might be on the sign next to it — EdMacArtist.

Patriotism and the Constitution

Of course, patriotism cannot be enforced by the flag salute. But neither can the liberal spirit be enforced by judicial invalidation of illiberal legislation. Our constant preoccupation with the constitutionality of legislation, rather than with its wisdom, tends to preoccupation of the American mind with a false value. The tendency of focussing attention on constitutionality is to make constitutionality synonymous with wisdom, to regard a law as all right if it is constitutional. Such an attitude is a great enemy of liberalism. Particularly in legislation affecting freedom of thought and freedom of speech, much which should offend a free-spirited society is constitutional. Reliance for the most precious interests of civilization, therefore, must be found outside of their vindication in courts of law. Only a persistent positive translation of the faith of a free society into the convictions and habits and action of a community is the ultimate reliance against unabated temptations to fetter the human spirit.

— Felix Frankfurter, dissenting opinion, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624) 1943

For information about the case and the full texts of the Court’s decision, see or

Part of the Conversation?

On the web, articles you have to pay for might as well not exist. Even if you were willing to pay to read them yourself, you can’t link to them. They’re not part of the conversation.

— Paul Graham, “Web 2.0” (

And so, also, physical texts (books, articles, movies, speeches, unrecorded conversations) that are not on the Web at all, and therefore cannot be linked in a discussion. And what, then, of the Great Conversation? How does it progress?

But haven’t there always been limits to the Conversation? One can’t actually participate in every exchange. One might not know the language, one might not be able to locate a particular text, one might not understand technical terminology. Or there might be other knowledge required to understand the discussion. I guess it’s a puzzle for me.