Thoreau’s Axe

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ours is an age of distraction. The pings, buzzes and chimes from our phones, tablets, laptops, watches and earbuds distract us from giving our undivided attention to whatever task is at hand. So, when writing the first draft of this review, I experimented by turning off all my device notifications and staying in the groove for hours. The experience was like being deep in prayer at the altar of the keyboard.

Last year, journalist Johann Hari described our 21st-century plague of distractibility in “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.” This year, Caleb Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Yale, gives us “Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture.” It’s a fascinating prequel to Hari from the era of the telegraph and steam locomotive, a time when America’s slower, rural, agricultural culture was transitioning into a faster, urban, industrial one. Lessons learned from the mid-19th century can help us make the transition to an attention economy in which electronic algorithms and artificial intelligence increasingly run the show.

The title “Thoreau’s Axe,” like the book’s serpentine jacket illustration and opening pages, was inspired by an anecdote in “Walden” by Henry D. Thoreau, America’s patron saint of paying attention.

The dateline is March 1845, in the woods of Concord, Mass. Thoreau, a hopeful 20-something, was felling pines for a small house he was building near Walden Pond to distance himself from distraction. Mornings were frosty, the lake was ice-covered, and snow fell in flurries. When the handle of his borrowed axe came off, he repaired it by inserting a new wedge, driving it with a stone, and soaking the head in a small pond. Suddenly, a striped snake slithered into the water and lay motionless for more than a quarter hour.
Thoreau finds in the motionless snake a triple metaphor that zooms outward: from the snake’s “torpid state” of winter hibernation to spring activity; from a man’s “low and primitive condition” to a “more ethereal life”; and from a society numb with distraction to one attentively engaged in more important things. In Mr. Smith’s phrase, he is “combining scientific concepts and Christian symbols to diagnose a state of mind.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

6 thoughts on “Thoreau’s Axe”

  1. Periodically I have to acknowledge that I have an iPhone that I use for phone, texts, messages, and maps. It has a ringtone straight out of 1959, and everything but a few calls go straight to messages. Waste of money.

    I use a laptop and Kindle a lot. But the phone? No interest in the things so many find attractive. I try them to understand what they are and how they work, then abandon them.

    I also wonder how many others also don’t care about the phone offerings. Are we a small percentage? Large? Function of age? What percentage of teens do not use things like Instagram on the phone?

    This morning I was in a First Watch for breakfast. I had a paper WSJ. It was the only paper newspaper in the place. Half the other patrons had a phone positioned next to the plate so they could easily see it. It wasn’t unusual to see a couple at a table, where each was engaged with the phone. I’m waiting to see what the uptake is for the first efficient and affordable set of video glasses with a usable control system for clicking, selection, etc.

    • “It was the only paper newspaper in the place. Half the other patrons had a phone positioned next to the plate so they could easily see it.”

      — it’s entirely possible that a few of them were reading the newspaper, perhaps even the WSJ.

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