He could be equally nonplussed by the increasing speed of transportation. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau memorably lamented, “it rides upon us.”
But there’s a different side to Thoreau’s relationship with technology that’s also worth remembering, since it says so much about our continuing struggle to strike the right balance between individual serenity and an interconnected planet.
Ralph Waldo Emerson revealed this aspect of Thoreau in a remembrance after Thoreau’s death.
Thoreau, Emerson recalled, went to the Harvard University Library to get some books.
The librarian refused to lend them, as did the university president, mentioning that the collection was available only to current students, certain alumni, and residents who lived within 10 miles of campus. Apparently, the management didn’t want treasured volumes wandering too far.
But Thoreau, hitting upon a clever argument, noted that the advent of the railroad “had destroyed the old scale of distances,” presumably meaning that books could now travel farther, and more safely, than they once did. By simply following the old rules, Thoreau contended, the library had compromised its mission.
Compelled by Thoreau’s logic and a few other arguments, the president relented. Thanks in part to the presence of the railroad, an institution about which he could be critical, Thoreau now had convenient access to a wealth of learning.