The following are a series of essays and notes inspired by the writing of Henry David Thoreau.

Tuesday
Apr242007

on books

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!"

It perplexes me sometimes, how I can spend so many hours with my head looking down and my eyes burrowing into the pages of a book. They really are curious objects, when you think about it. Made from paper harvested from trees, pressed with ink, held together with glue and sometimes thread, it's amazing how books can impact our lives the way they do. And, there are so many different kinds of books capable of communicating so many different things.

When I was a boy, usually before bedtime, my mother used to read to me. From what I can remember, my favorite book was called "Go Dog Go." It's a classic children's book about all kinds of colorful dogs racing toward a big party inside a huge tree. When we are children, books, with their simple life affirming stories, activate our imaginations and fuel our curiosities so well. And when we share those feelings with a loved one, we come alive and feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

As we grow older, however, our interest in books and reading seems to evolve. We read burdensome textbooks to educate ourselves in school, then we read fashionable magazines to stay popular among our peers. As adults, we may browse through serious newspapers to stay abreast of current events; and, if we can find the time, we might even read a "gripping" piece of popular fiction during an annual summer holiday.

I wonder if the very first bookmakers and bookbinders had any idea how influencial their invention would become? And, I wonder if they had any idea that the books they would so carefully print and bind would be replaced by a myriad of inexpensive publications that are picked up and thrown away at the drop of a hat.

During the last several years, I've worked for a Rare Book Conservation Center. Although I don't restore any of the historic volumes myself, I do work around them every day. I photograph them and carefully pack them in boxes and send them to far away universities. When I first started, I used to build custom cases and enclosures for books that were written and printed nearly 500 years ago. Many of these volumes are falling apart, but surprisingly, many of them are still in good condition. Some of the oldest volumes are often in the best condition, as they were usually made with the highest quality paper, ink, and vellum. To hold a book of this stature in your hands is truly a gift. Somehow, you can feel the love and care of the original bookbinder in the book itself.

Although I find the convenience of computers undeniable, I hope at least some books will continue to be made the old fashioned way. But, then again, perhaps this is simply not very realistic. Perhaps the best bindings should be reserved for the best writings. And, maybe there just aren't that many writings worth keeping around for 500 years. Perhaps the current publishing world is as it should be. Inexpensive paperbacks and electronic readers for quick, easy, temporal reading. No need to read substancial works the old-fashioned way, when there is money to be made and shopping to do.

Although I read a lot, I don't own that many books - probably under 200. Most of them are hardback editions, although I do own a few of the lesser, paperback variety. I think as I eventually generate some extra income, I'll update my collection a bit. I'll likely replace some of the cheaper volumes with better hardcover editions. I'm not sure how many new books I will continue to buy, however. Lately, I find it more valuable to re-read a classic a number of times, instead of forever expanding my collection.

I think certain things take a long time to appreciate. Like a close friend, a good book takes time to get to know. The more an author of such a book has in common with you, the more you feel at ease; and the more a part of yourself the book becomes. When you read a book that begins a new era of your life, a dormant part of your spirit wakes up.

Perhaps all good books foster a feeling of closeness and familiarity within their readers. The closer the book hits home, the more closely we hold it near. My literary friend Thoreau is someone who has walked a path that feels similar to my own. And, for this reason, my copy of Walden has become a book that will remain with me, either physically or spriritually, for a long time to come.

In the end, I am thankful for the books that have helped me to grow and evolve; and, not only will I continue to read them and handle them with care, I will also acknowledge them as important extensions of the person, and the writer, I am slowly trying to become.


Thursday
May032007

on names

"With a knowledge of the name comes a more distinct recognition and knowledge of the thing."

In 1837, at the age of twenty, after having just finished his schooling at Harvard, Thoreau moved back to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. With the encouragement of a new mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau began to keep a daily journal, and he began thinking of himself as a writer and poet. He did something else as well.

Just as he was about to begin a new chapter of his life, he decided to change the order of his two given names. Instead of David Henry, he decided to call himself Henry David.

Although it may seem like a small thing at first glance, I believe that a decision like this signifies something much deeper. A decision like this reaffirms that our names, and the language we use to describe ourselves, impact our perceptions in powerful ways. Perhaps our names, and the words that we feel define us most specifically, are more important than we realize. Or maybe we do realize it, and that's why we tend to change or amend our names at certain points in our lives. We shed one identity and grow into another. Maybe at certain crossroads, we wonder who we are and where we are going. We might even draw new conclusions about our unique purpose in life.

For whatever reason, lately, I've also been trying to dig a little deeper and uncover more clearly who I am. I've been wondering where to work, how to live, and who to spend time with. I've been examining my creative habits and mediums. In short, I've been wondering where I belong. I've also been wondering about where I came from, which has led me to do some research in order to find the meanings and origins of my own name.

So far, this is what I've learned.

My last name CREAN was originally spelled O Croidheagain. It originates from the Gaelic word "croidhe" - meaning "heart". Apparently, some of my very earliest ancestors held a family seat near Donegal, Ireland. It's also come to my attention that many CREANS have lived and continue to live in County Sligo in the northwest portion of Ireland.

The traditional Irish pronunciation of the name CREAN sounds like "crane".... similar to the Irish poet Yeats, who also lived in County Sligo. The English pronunciation of Crean sounds like "kreen". And, although both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable, my own family uses the traditional pronunciation. So, my last name is pronounced "crane".

My first given name is BRIAN and it also originates from Ireland. It is related to the old Celtic element "bre", meaning "hill" or "high". Other extended meanings of the name BRIAN are "noble" or "strong".

My second given name, or my middle name, is PATRICK. Although most people currently think of Patrick as an Irish name as well, it actually originates from ancient Rome, derived from Patricius, meaning "nobleman". In ancient Rome, citizens were considered either Patricians (noblemen) or Plebians (commoners). We only think of Patrick as an Irish name because a British missionary, named Sucat, changed his name to Patrick when he became a priest. After traveling throughout Ireland and converting the island to Christianity, he became known as St. Patrick.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, as part of a Catholic ritual, I chose the name JOSEPH as my confirmation or spiritual name. Although I'm no longer Catholic, I suppose I still think of Joseph as one of my unofficial names. Derived from the Hebrew Yosef, it means "he will add." This meaning came about due to his life story. Apparently, Yosef was the favorite son of the biblical figure Jacob. However, Yosef's brothers became jealous and sold him into slavery - telling their father that he had died. After being enslaved in Egypt for many years, Yosef eventually rose to become a chief advisor to the Pharaoh. Eventually, the family was reconciled in Egypt, and the name Yosef came to stand for one who rises to power or aspires to great heights. The story of Yosef, in a way, is about faith and perseverance. Two things needed in order to rise above one's station in life.

Needless to say, I have been finding all of this very interesting. Although I would never be confident enough to define myself in such a way, I think it is wonderful to have a name which, literally translated, means:

"High, strong, noble, rising, heart".

It's also been wonderful to expand my research and learn some interesting things about Thoreau's name.

Obviously, the name THOREAU is French. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found a specific translation of its meaning, but I have learned that Thoreau's ancestors were from the Poitou-Charentes district of France. His grandparents immigrated to America in the 1700's. His father was French, and his mother was of Scottish decent.

The name DAVID is Hebrew and means "beloved". And, the name HENRY is derived from the German name "Heimiric" which means "home ruler".

It's truly astounding when you think about it. How incredibly fitting that the author of WALDEN, a book about building and living in a small cabin in the woods, would have a name that, literally translated, means "beloved home ruler".

Lately, my interest in names has spread from people to trees as well. While I've been walking through some of the trails near my home, I've been wondering about the different trees that I encounter while I walk. I've been noticing which trees are tall and which are short, and which trees bend more easily in the wind. I've been noticing and appreciating the beauty of their leaves and branches, and the different textures of their trunks. There are certain trees, near the waters edge, that I tend to photograph over and over.

As I've been looking so closely at these trees, I've also been thinking about doing some scientific research as well. I've been asking myself.... should I go to the library and start learning the official names of these trees? But, then something inside me says.... no, don't start down that path. The path of the scientist is a different path and doesn't really suit me. It's not the type of tree that I'm interested in. It's the individuality of specific trees that hold my attention.

If I start to learn the scientific names of the trees, I'm afraid I will start to look at them scientifically. My walks will become a series of classifications; they will not continue to be the explorations of beauty that I've come to appreciate so much.

"We are constantly invited to be who we are", wrote Thoreau.

I think I am fundamentally drawn to the beauty of my surroundings. I am not a scientist with scientific eyes that names trees and people according to their genus. The trees I see while I walk may or may not be elms or pines. But, they are certainly unique gifts to be appreciated.

There is one particular tree that I often see on my walks. I don't know what kind of tree she is, but I've still named her SOPHIA. True to the Greek origin of her name, she is indeed wise, and when the sun shines through her leaves, she glows and makes the world seem perfect just as it is. Perhaps the eyes of a "high, noble, rising heart" are simply destined to see her in this light. Like all of the trees that surround her, she is more than just another birch or maple. I believe the beauty and essence of SOPHIA is timeless and beyond such generalizations, just like the writing, poetry, and personality of our "beloved home ruler" Henry David Thoreau.