Good boredom

May 10, 2012

“A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement. For all these reasons a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

–Bertrand Russell



March 29, 2011

“They that make them are like unto them;
So is every one that trusteth in them.”

–Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, applying Psalm 115 to the way computers shape our world

Books provide a supplement to memory, but they also, as [Umberto] Eco put it, “challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.”

–Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr further notes that for Erasmus, memorizing was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading. Far from being a mechanical, mindless process, Erasmus’s brand of memorization engaged the mind fully. It required creativity and judgment.

Erasmus suggested that every student and teacher keep a notebook, organized by subject, “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section.”

This is the origin of the commonplace book.

Seneca recommended something similar. Both Erasmus and Seneca’s memory/learning metaphors were organic, not data-driven.

In 1623, Francis Bacon observed that “there can hardly be anything more useful” as “a sound help for the memory” than “a good and learned Digest of Common Places.” By aiding the recording of written works in memory, he wrote, a well-maintained commonplace “supplies matter to invention.”

William James: “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.”

Forming strong connections between memories requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.

The internet, by distracting us, discourages these connections.

(All notes are paraphrased from The Shallows)

New technologies

March 24, 2011

This quote pertains to the invention of writing, as discussed by Thamus, the king of Egypt, and Theuth, the inventor of writing, in Plato’s Phaedrus:

Theuth says that writing will:

“make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories.”

Thamus replies:

“O man full of arts, to one is it given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of the tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect.”

And that those who rely on reading for their knowledge will:

“seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.”

Plato, however, was a writer.

–As discussed in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

“There is a need for rhythm, detachment, slowness. Why can’t students grasp all they’re taught? Because they do not have time to become conscious of, to come back to, what they heard, to let it really enter their minds. A contemporary student registers knowledge, but does not assimilate it; therefore that knowledge does not “produce” anything. A downpour of rain is immeasurably less useful for a drought than a thin, constant drizzle! But we are all the time under a thunderous downpour–of information, reports, knowledge, discussions, etc. And all of these flow around us, never sticking to us, immediately being pushed away be the next deluge.”

The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, September 30, 1977

I’m thinking a lot lately about this downpour of knowledge, because I’m trying to decide whether my daughter will be prepared for the onslaught of formal study in college in three or four years. Already it’s hard to get in both music practice and study during a day. But as long as my daughter really is reflecting, I don’t think it’s taking the easy way out for her to go slowly, so that one has time to look at a topic from all sides before moving on. The main thing is to encourage that reflection.

Rushing conclusions

May 22, 2010

A snippet of conversation from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury:


“Oh, but we’ve plenty of off-hours.”

“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall television. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly, to its own conclusions. Your mind hasn’t time to protest,’What nonsense!'”

The details are a little dated, but the idea of rushing conclusions in Fahrenheit 451 is very relevant. Bradbury could blame it on the television, but we know better now. With the internet, we have lots of choices and can even contribute our own content, but what do we use it for? To fashion ourselves into mini-celebrities! And if we do use self-control (or just exhaustion) to opt out, society insinuates that we are being left behind. So, our whole society rushes conclusions, to the point where you rush along with it voluntarily. This self-policing aspects is one of the main points of Fahrenheit 451.


May 6, 2010

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

–Thoreau, Walden