Books, burning

“Every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

I have taken this quote out of context–Emerson wrote this sentence as part of his reflection on compensation: he was questioning the received doctrine of his era that evil-doers flourish on earth and the just do not, therefore Heaven is God’s compensation for the trials of being a Good human being. Emerson did not accept this doctrine out of hand and theorized that, through just laws, people could make compensatory actions operable on the earth. He recognized, too, that sometimes evil people fail to thrive and compassionate, just people manage quite well. The received wisdom was merely received, not wise. Nonetheless, I find “Compensation” essentially dualist. And it is, truly, a sermon.

In the paragraph that contains the above words, Emerson suggests that there is always compensation of some kind for any act, for good or ill, that suppression cannot be maintained–the volcano will surge eventually–that the martyr never dies in vain because from his or her action will arise, in time and through the flaws and the perfections of Nature, some form of (often surprising) compensation. Hmm. Sounds a bit similar to Karma.


And I am thinking, again, of books and what they offer. My students tend to consider books as information solely (I do not generally teach the kind of young person who reads novels or philosophy). This is, we have been reminded continually, the Information Age–so that approach to books seems well-founded. Then there are our other means of information-gathering, largely through technological devices. These phones and various screens are mighty distracting and designed to be so. Yes, Fahrenheit 451 was prescient. Does the book-burning in that novel begin a revolution? Not in the predicted ways.


More prescient writing (found, by the way, in books): Neil Postman, back in 1985, commenting on the prescience of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in Postman’s must-read cultural criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his foreword, Postman writes

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.


Is there compensation for being drowned in a sea of irrelevance? What might that look like?


Perhaps these are a few of the reasons I often need to turn from information to poetry.burning



Ignore more?

One of my brothers-in-law has been visiting from Berlin during the holidays. His young adult children all live in the U.K., and it is enjoyable to hear what they are doing and how they navigate the world as they grow–having children of their own, pursuing academic degrees or careers in the arts–and finding parallels between their lives and their American cousins’ lives. My brother-in-law (Lee, a jazz musician, listen here on YouTube) told me he recently asked his older son what the most valuable skill for the next couple of decades was likely to be. The answer surprised him:

“The skill of learning what to ignore,” his son said.

When Lee pressed a bit further for clarification, his son explained that “information overload” and real-time social and other media, along with television and Google Glass and smart phones and whatever next gets developed, overwhelm the human brain to such an extent that people tend to lose the ability to sort or to prioritize. When we get distracted, we become less efficient; several recent studies suggest that there are costs to trying to do everything at once.

So, according to my nephew (who is studying neurology at Oxford), those of us who learn to shut out unnecessary information are likely to be more successful in a highly-communicative, highly-technological social landscape. The difficulty is knowing what kind of information is unimportant. Another difficulty is that our brains are wired to sense everything. In fact, our brains are already highly developed to screen out “useless” information. Managing an even more intentional focus will not necessarily be as automatic. It may be something we have to learn: i.e., a skill.

I think I need to re-develop my ability to ignore things. It seems likely that a lack of intentional focus and time away from technology would get me working on my poetry more than I have been. One way to regain this skill might be to recharge my mindfulness/meditation practice. The intentionality of the practice, and its conscious use of both awareness and screening or letting go, seems valuable enough over all that it would be well worth the time away from multitasking.

One possible “New Year’s Resolution,” then?

Ignore more.