Thoreau’s Journal and Modern Equivalents (with Apologies to the French)

Henry Thoreau wrote a lot more than Walden and Civil Disobedience. Among other things, he wrote two million or so words in his journal. Here’s the first entry, dated October 20, 1837, when Thoreau was 20 (the “he” is probably Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson):

“What are you doing now?” he asked, “Do you keep a journal?” — So I make my first entry to-day. 

A week later, Thoreau described two interlopers at Goose Pond:

Two ducks, of the summer or wood species, which were merrily dabbling in their favorite basin, struck up a retreat on my approach, and seemed disposed to take French leave, paddling off with swan-like majesty . They are first-rate swimmers, beating me at a round pace, and – what was to me a new trait in the duck character – dove every minute or two and swam several feet under water, in order to escape our attention. Just before immersion they seemed to give each other a significant nod, and then, as if by a common understanding, ‘t was heels up and head down in the shaking of a duck’s wing. When they reappeared, it was amusing to observe with what a self-satisfied, darn-it-how-benicks-’em air they paddled off to repeat the experiment.

According to the usual sources, a “French leave” is an old expression that means leaving or taking your leave without permission or without an announcement. You just go, like two ducks quietly paddling away from a naturalist or a birthday part; or  like a soldier going A.W.O.L. or even deserting. In some contexts, a “French leave” is a pretty bad thing, which is why the French call it “filer à l’anglaise or “to leave English style”. (By the way, I couldn’t discover what “darn-it-how-benicks-’em” means, or I’d have shared that too.) 

When I picked up my unread copy of The Journal 1837-1861 this afternoon and read those two entries above, I was impressed. Thoreau was a damn good writer, even at the age of 20. Then I asked myself a standard question. Would Thoreau have written a blog instead of a journal if he’d had the opportunity? People do write journals today. Some even write millions of words, despite the modern world’s distractions. But why write a journal instead of a blog? (And why in the world write a blog?)

It seems like the basic difference between journals and blogs is that journals are private and blogs aren’t. In theory, you can write whatever you want in your journal and nobody will be the wiser, at least until you make it public or your grieving family resurrects it. But on a blog, there are restrictions. Usually, anyone with the necessary technology can read your latest post, so you watch what you say. You want to be interesting, but not too interesting.

On the other hand, you can give yourself much more freedom on a blog by writing anonymously or using pseudonyms. But if journals can be made public and blogs can be made private, perhaps ease of access isn’t the fundamental difference between journals and blogs. Maybe the key difference is the intended audience. In writing a journal, you are writing to and for yourself. Someone else might eventually read your journal, but journals are self-directed. Blogs, on the other hand, are other-directed. It’s assumed there is an audience of actual human beings out there. Hence, you write a blog with an audience (you guys) in mind, even though by doing so, you are writing for yourself as well.

On this blog’s “About” page, I used to say that writing is a way to find out what you think. In the case of a blog, however, it’s a way to find out what you think and then share it. Your words could even save the world one day. (Hey, it’s not completely impossible!) As for Thoreau, I think he would have been a blogger, because, despite his time alone in the woods, he wanted us all to live better lives.

But let’s get back to those ducks. You’ve probably noticed that many blogs display a certain statistic. Here on this blog, as of this moment, you the reader are invited to join 313 other followers. The idea behind that statistic, of course, is that a large number of followers demonstrates that a blog is worth following (50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong). What you probably haven’t noticed, however, is that the number of followers (on WordPress blogs anyway) never goes down! At least, this blog’s number has never gone down (jeez, I must be almost as good as Thoreau).

Now, assuming it’s just possible that somebody who decided to follow this blog once upon a time may have lost interest, or that someone who followed this blog only did so in order to tell me about their blog, I should see my number of followers fluctuate. Somebody stops following – the number goes down. Somebody starts following – the number goes up. I’m forced to conclude, therefore, that “join 313 other followers” should really say “join 313 other people who followed this blog for whatever reason and may or may not be following it now, with the emphasis on ‘not'”.

I know that at least five people, well, maybe four people, read this blog regularly, because they tell me so (I prefer to believe them). And there are statistics indicating that other followers visit now and then. But when you think about it, a blog that is only read by its author is basically a journal. A blog with no readers is about as self-directed as one of those fancy notebooks that come with a lock and key.

Despite the impressive statistic, therefore, many “followers” have, yes, taken French leave! They’ve quietly departed, even more quietly than (here they are) those ducks on Goose Pond.

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