Henry at Work invites readers to rethink how we work today by exploring an aspect of Henry David Thoreau that has often been overlooked: Thoreau the worker. John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle overturn the popular misconception of Thoreau as a navel-gazing recluse who was scornful of work and other mundanities. In fact, Thoreau worked hard—surveying land, running his family’s pencil-making business, writing, lecturing, and building his cabin at Walden Pond—and thought intensely about work in its many dimensions. And his ideas about work have much to teach us in an age of remote work and automation, when many people are reconsidering what kind of working lives they want to have.
Through Thoreau, readers will discover a philosophy of work in the office, factory, lumber mill, and grocery store, and reflect on the rhythms of the workday, the joys and risks of resigning oneself to work, the dubious promises of labor-saving technology, and that most vital and eternal of philosophical questions, “How much do I get paid?” In ten chapters, including “Manual Work,” “Machine Work,” and “Meaningless Work,” this personal, urgent, practical, and compassionate book introduces readers to their new favorite coworker: Henry David Thoreau.
John Kaag is the Donohue Professor of Ethics and the Arts at UMass Lowell and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His books include Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are and Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (Princeton). Jonathan van Belle is an independent scholar and former philosophy editor at Outlier.org. He is also coeditor with Kaag of the anthology Be Not Afraid of Life: In the Words of William James (Princeton).
"This is philosophy as Thoreau would have recognized it: full of life. An inspiring book that will give you the succor you need to reconsider—and possibly change—the way you work."—Kirkus
"[An] astute study. . . . The speculation on what Thoreau would think about modern workplaces is plausible and well supported. . . making a strong case for the transcendentalist’s continued relevance. This should give workaholics pause."—Publishers Weekly
“Teacher, surveyor, laborer, pencilmaker, lecturer, writer—why is Henry Thoreau called a layabout when he worked so hard at so many jobs? Because, as the coworkers Kaag and van Belle show us, Thoreau always sought to work deliberately—and so can we. Part conversation, part meditation, this urgent book probes the roots of our post-Covid discontent and suggests how we can reorient our lives to the quest for meaningful work. What’s your work? Whatever it is, set it aside for a spell and join the conversation: as Thoreau would say, it’s never too late to make good on the business of living.”—Laura Dassow Walls, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life
“This is a necessary book. It recovers the true Thoreau, who, far from the loafer of many accounts, was the most practical of all our philosophers. He worked hard, and he also thought about why he was working, an American Buddha with a hammer and a hoe. This book should correct our history and reintroduce many to one of its greatest figures.”—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
“Henry at Work is a tract for our times. At this moment of social questioning, no writer is better suited to provide inspiration and guidance than Henry David Thoreau. He modeled the message he preached, and his labors can inform and inspire our rethinking of work today. John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle present a concise and engaging account of what Thoreau has to teach us about the possibilities and pitfalls of labor in the changing circumstances of the twenty-first century.”—Robert A. Gross, author of The Transcendentalists and Their World
“For those, like me, who never got on with Thoreau, this book is a revelation. Gone is the smug, superior dreamer; in his place, a hopeful cynic, an industrious worker determined not to hurry, and a prophet with no patience for pretension. This is a must-read for anyone who works.”—Kieran Setiya, author of Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way