“A spate of words does nothing to satisfy the soul, but a good life refreshes the mind….”—Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
According to college professor Margarita Mooney, writing at Public Discourse: “Students at a one-week seminar on happiness I co-taught recently at Yale University made a proposal so simple that I was mystified: they wanted to organize a conversation table in every dining hall.” Being of an older generation, Dr. Mooney wondered why they needed a special table for what used to be a normal mealtime activity. The answer is that now most people will have their noses down in their mobile devices, absorbing the virtual “conversation” of the planet while tuning out the people immediately around them.
Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, famously predicted the cultural inversion of modern technology. Aside from issues of censorship, his book is chiefly about the demise of traditional leisure and human interaction. Of course the tendencies behind our attention-deficit-disordered civilization must have been in place long ago. Bradbury saw the portents in 1953. Thirty years earlier (well before television) A. G. Sertillanges spoke of “continual sight stimuli” which “destroy mental energy” and “the deluge of writing that… floods our libraries and our minds.” Centuries before that, Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Often I am wearied by all I read and hear.” All that the “New Media” has done is to accelerate this human tendency to dissipation. Yet it remains true that, regardless of society’s temptations or expectations, we can control the information we take in.
In his classic work The Intellectual Life (referred to in my last post), Sertillanges discusses the importance of good reading and “not reading much.” It is a question of quality—since we have to contend with the vulgarization of language—as well as sheer quantity. He warns that
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. The uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow… the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words….
The Dominican writer does not intend that we become completely aloof to the world. Nevertheless, there is a sad irony in the fact that as we permit ourselves to be distracted by every news story or trending factoid we end up less and less aware of the reality that is in front of us. Then, too, says Sertillanges, there is a time not to read… a time to act and live as well.
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