Friday, December 30, 2011

The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction / P.M. Forni -- N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 2011

A number of books have been published recently that warn of possible damaging effects of the internet and other digital communication technologies. Among them are Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and John Miedema's Slow Reading. Lanier warns that social media are turning us into willing tools of database developers, coarsening our personalities, and diverting us from exploring the rich, multi-dimensional and nuanced life of the real world of people and tangible things. Nicholas Carr warns that the internet is a massive distraction machine that is shortening our attention spans and possibly changing the structure of our brains making us less able to engage in deep thought. Medeima exhalts the pleasures of combating these tendencies through the practice of reading extended, artfully written texts, slowly and deliberately.

P.M. Forni's new book The Thinking Life fits into this new and developing genera. It is less analytical and more practical than the others. While a good, practical guide would be of value, Forni's book too often lapses into the realm of the trite self-help book, making it of limited use to any reasonably thoughtful adult, i.e., someone thoughtful enough to read a book about thinking. It might, however, offer valuable lessons to an adolescent who over-values the ready information and profusion of content available on the internet.

In the early chapters, Forni describes two elements that are essential to serious thought: time and attention. He rightly observes that both are threatened by our contemporary fixation on the inconsequential trivia that is communicated via the internet and cell phone communication. He then describes two important forms of thought: reflection and introspection, the bane of which is distraction.

Following these chapters, the work begins to read more like an extended monologue in Hamlet by Polonius to his son Laertes. The advice Forni offers is largely commonplace and uncontroversial: how to be a good student, employee, or manager. There are, however, usually valuable kernels embedded within the advice. For example, Forni rightly observes (quoting the Buddha) that "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." However, his elaboration of this truth becomes little more than a rehash of the power of positive thinking. Elsewhere, he rightly recognizes the importance of cultivating self-control. This is followed by his trademark bulleted list of recommendations. The work becomes of a piece with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends and Influence People, both of which he cites favorably.

The superficiality of the work cannot, however, vitiate its core idea: deep, serious thought has significant benefits: it is intrinsically pleasurable, conducive to good decision making, and essential to a truly happy life in the Aristotelian sense. Furthermore, our ability to engage in deep, serious thought is being challenged by the explosion of the seductive, on line trivia that increasingly intrudes on our time.


  1. In addition to introspection and reflection, I would want to add attention to the natural world, mmersion in it and dialogue with it. Too many books and too many blogs become yet more navel-gazing. I appreciate your blog, Alan, because you bring our attention to matters outside ourselves. Thank you.

  2. Yes, attantion to the natural world is definitely missing from Forni's book. He is a classicist and as such his idea of thinking, when it is not an exploration of the self, tackles the same issues that preoccupied the ancient Greeks and Romans. I don't really mind this, since the classics seem pretty absent from the world anymore, but it doesn't capture everything that's important.

    Its emphasis on logos neglects the immediate experience of the world which to my mind is essential to deep thinking. I was struck how little Forni said about meditation, but then I realized that the last thing he recommends is to empty our minds. Going back and forth between the deep thinking and that Forni commends and meditation seems to me to be a good path to enlightment and the good life.

  3. Don't forget Aristotle, Alan! An ancient who paid attention to the natural world, he is the Greek I turn to again and again.

    Happy new year!