In a brief essay in the May 29, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, writer Hallie Cantor describes the process of writing. At one point she considers one aspect of the writer’s craft that is seeming more odd in our super-connected world: “”In the afternoon, I typically take a long walk. I do not listen to podcasts. Why would I? The music of the natural world is podcast enough. As you may have noticed, a running theme in my process is that I am not afraid to be alone with my thoughts, Not al all.” Hollie Cantor, “The Writer’s Process,” New Yorker, May 29, 2017, p. 27.
Armed with our various smart devices, cable television, and other technological wonders of our age, we do, in fact, seem to be afraid of being alone. To be a writer or a scholar, one must, at some point, be content to be alone, allowing reflection on our world and what we are trying to write. While I try to watch and read the news, I am concerned with constant “breaking news” every half hour or more, that is often more distraction than real news. Involved with teaching graduate students, I have become even more concerned with how disconnected many of these students are from reading, in a careful and reflective manner, scholarly and professional books (or, in fact, books of any kind).
Despite decades of predications about the demise of the printed book, books continue to play important roles in society. They inspire, agitate, inform, amuse us – and more. They make us think. In recent years, a long stream of books about particular books and their influences have appeared. Two recent examples suggest our continuing fascination with books. Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (New York: Viking, 2017) is a lively account of how Darwin’s book played a role in American philosophy and politics on the eve of the Civil War. Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (New York: Penguin, 2014) is a “biography of a book,” focusing on its censorship and political battles and literary and popular influence. Both studies attest to the fact that books matter and words are important.
Will Twitter messages engage us in any way similar to that of the power of books? Twitter, and other such social media and stuff is what we need to get away from in order to be alone with our thoughts.