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