Walking the Woods with Thoreau – by Charlotte Canellli

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli’s column in the May 31, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

When I decided to become a librarian, I had already spent the first half of my life raising my family of daughters. I had just turned 47 when I returned to graduate school in library science. It was a natural reinvention of my life after having spent years reading to my children and volunteering in their school libraries. After homeschooling one of my daughters, and serving as home librarian, I slipped effortlessly into the role of children’s librarianship.

I was wise to subscribe to these words attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC): Find a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. (A friend of mine left his career as a certified public accountant because he wanted to love his job as much as I loved mine. He is a librarian today, working as a public library director in New York State.)

A few of my favorite books published during the years I worked as a children’s librarian were the unusually illustrated picture books known as the Henry Books by D.B. Johnson. In them, Johnson whimsically make sense of some of the complicated, yet paradoxically simple philosophies of New England’s Henry David Thoreau.
In “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg” (2000), Johnson explains that Thoreau loved to take long, long walks around New England, thinking all the way. Thoreau argued that people should spend more of their lives doing what they love to do. In his book “Walden”, Thoreau wrote that he could walk all the way from Concord to Fitchburg and never spend a cent. Meanwhile, his friend might toil all day earning the train fare and arrive there without the valuable experience that Thoreau had.

Johnson’s other books, “Henry Climbs a Mountain” (2003), “Henry Builds a Cabin” (2002), and “Henry Works” (2004), all explain more of Thoreau’s thoughtful living through beautiful and colorful full-page illustrations accompanied by short, meaningful text.

As a high school student, reading Thoreau had often confused and confounded me. D.B. Johnson’s beautifully-created picture books were right up my alley.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal on February 3, 1852 that he “sometimes imagined a library, i.e., a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick and marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city … but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest.” The library at the Thoreau Institute, tucked into the woods in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is simply an marvelous place not far from the hustle and bustle of Route 2 in Concord. Across and down the road from Walden Pond in Concord, it is nestled on what might be described as hallowed ground. One can imagine and almost make up the apparition of Henry David Thoreau in the woods surrounding the complex.

Several years ago I met Jeffrey Cramer, the curator of collections (or librarians) at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. A few springs ago, Jeff invited a dozen or so of my librarian colleagues to spend the day at the Thoreau Institute and gave us a tour of the unique library that is part of the Walden Woods Project.

Amazed at such a place, my fellow librarians and I asked Jeff how he got so darn lucky to find this ideal job in such an idyllic library.

Jeff (formerly an archivist at the Boston Public Library) has been reading, writing, eating, sleeping Henry David Thoreau for much of his adult life. Reviewers and journalists have described Jeff as one who lives and breathes Thoreau. Visiting the Thoreau Institute for research one day, serendipity happily glanced Jeff’s way. He learned that there was an opening for the sole librarian position, or curator of the Thoreau Institute’s library. Jeff applied and got the job.

Earlier in his life, as a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the 70s, Jeff became interested in Thoreau’s writings after reading Walden and visiting the location in Concord. It wasn’t until nearly a decade ago, thought that his first work on Thoreau was published. In the ensuing years, he has edited and annotated at least half a dozen more, most recently “Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Version” (2013).

With 8,000 books and 50,000 documents cataloged and filed in this idyllic library in the woods, Jeff Cramer combines his life’s work with his life’s passion. In his latest book Jeff acknowledges his wife and daughters for “once again” welcoming Henry David Thoreau, “this transcendental visitor”, into their home during his writing and research.

In addition to his works on Thoreau, Jeff has annotated work on another beloved New Englander, poet Robert Frost. Nearly all reviewers have noted that Jeff Cramer’s annotations and notes are readable to everyone, the non-scholar and scholar alike. Jacqueline Blais of USA Today wrote that the side notes written by Jeff in Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition (2004) “are like short, illuminating conversations.”

Like many librarians, Jeff Cramer has found a way to combine the things he loves in life with his work. In his 1863 essay, Life without Principle, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but let him who does it for the love of it.” In reality, most librarians manage to support themselves doing what they love. (The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods is supported by the wonderful efforts of Don Henley, of the Eagles. Those fundraising efforts, along with donations by other caring celebrities, pay Jeff a salary.)

If you’ve ever found Thoreau’s writings daunting, you might pick up one of Johnson’s picture books or Jeff Cramer’s scholarly editions. Libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, including our own, have them all. Visit the library’s website and the link to the Minuteman Library Network to put one of these books on hold. You may also call 781-769-0200 and speak to a librarian who will place the request for you.

This entry was posted in From the Library - A Weekly Column. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.