The Cost of a Thing

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A couple months ago, we wrote about Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft, and around the same time I read another interesting review of the book, by Caleb Crain. (I refrained from posting about it at the time to avoid Crain-overkill.) In it, he describes the growth of wages, and consequently, leisure during the industrial revolution, and then goes on to produce an amazing quote from Thoreau about money:

Freed from absolute necessity, the growing middle classes were able to consider work for its own sake. Was it good in itself? If it seemed tedious, was a nicer spoon sufficient compensation?

A few philosophical types objected that it wasn’t, notably a surveyor and part-time pencil-manufacturing consultant in Massachusetts named Henry D Thoreau, who was willing to live in a shed and hoe beans so as to have time to read his beloved classics in the original Greek and Latin. “If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do,” Thoreau wrote, “I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for.” According to Thoreau, “the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” In the service of thrift, he claimed to be able to digest board-nails; not many had the stomach to follow him. Perhaps they were unsure whether they would be able to make as much out of the classics as he had.

The cost of a thing is the amount of life required to be exchanged for it. That is a motto worth having stitched onto your wallet.

The full review — which is long and very worthwhile — can be read here.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →