The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction, by P.M. Forni

Two stars, read in July 2012.

The funny thing about this book is this recommendation by Robert Sutton that I read on the back cover:

The Thinking Life is the most provocative and useful book I’ve read in years. As I traveled through it, Professor Forni gave me ideas… made me feel guilty, annoyed me . . . and inspired me . . . You probably won’t agree with everything in this book, but that is part of its brilliance: Forni compels you to live the Thinking Life as you devour his little gem.

It’s funny because I didn’t read that review until I was halfway through the book, by which time I had decided that, though there were a lot of really fantastic points in it, I also found the author pretty irritating. You don’t usually see those blurbs written by people who said the book annoyed them, but apparently for this book that’s a relevant piece of information.

From the title, I was expecting a focus on mindfulness, learning to think critically, being observant, and so on. And there was a lot of that in the book—a lot I really enjoyed, like these thoughts on communication:

As the most comprehensive encyclopedia ever assembled, the Internet yields serious and complex content. But we know that it is also a provider of mind-numbing distraction. The idea that communication is an intrinsically good thing seems to pervade our culture with the power of a self-evident truth . . . That is unfortunate, because as we value the act of communicating, the value of what we are communicating becomes almost irrelevant.

But with this point, as with most of his points, I discovered that I agree with the core and not necessarily with the conclusions he draws. He spends a page lamenting “Nutella news” (the sharing of mundane aspects of our lives, like the fact that we’re deciding to switch from peanut butter to Nutella for breakfast); he goes on throughout the book about “narcissism” and “our worship of self-expression.” In fact, he explicitly blames this “ego-worshiping” for the “legions of self-absorbed youngsters” who think they can do no wrong—because parents are so afraid of inhibiting their children’s self-expression that they refuse to openly disapprove of anything they do. This is, I believe, just an absurd thing to say, and the kind of thing that is said mostly by crabby old people. Of course those children exist—and they have always existed. They are not a new phenomena, and I do not think there are “legions” of them.

And while I do agree that too much of our time online is generally spent on trivial things, I don’t think I agree that everything that’s not important is automatically worthless and bad for us. That’s a little draconian for me. What I do believe, in reference to his statement about the value of what we are communicating, is that we need to accept the presence of the internet in our lives and learn how to use it in ways that are meaningful—if not in replacement of all the silly memes and Nutella status updates, at least in addition to them. (I’ve written about this before.)

Essentially, Forni spends a lot of time moralizing about the state of today’s society, and I don’t have much patience for people who insist on believing the past was better. I don’t believe, as he does, that Nike’s slogan “evokes a flat, amoral universe” or “gave its young clients license to follow their impulses.” I don’t think Benjamin Franklin is a very good example of self-restraint, and I don’t believe that people who “pride [themselves] on showing respect and appreciation for the values and customs of cultures around the world” are really just people who can’t commit to a set of morals.

But I do mean it when I say there are great ideas in addition to the stupid ones. The original point is that thinking is a skill, and it’s one we should cultivate deliberately. Forni suggests that instead of working, reading, or emailing through lunch, or listening to the radio on your commute in the mornings, you try just thinking. He points out that waiting is something everyone hates, but no one can avoid—it’s just a part of life—and rather than “chomping at the bit” whenever we’re forced to wait, we can choose to use it as thinking time, to just “relax and welcome the gift of precious time for your personal use.” I thought that line was lovely, even if I won’t stop using my every spare minute to read.

I also liked his recommendation that we cut out one-third of our obligations. If you usually attend thirty business lunches a year, he suggests, try moving down to only twenty, saving some time and money that you can put toward other things. Time for thinking has to come from somewhere, since there are only so many hours in the day and we have them pretty well filled up most of the time. For me it wouldn’t be business lunches, but maybe time I spend online.

He makes a good point, too, about learning to say no. It’s a skill our culture doesn’t teach well, and one that is essential to having healthy boundaries in our relationships.

A firm “no” is a form of self-respect. It allows you to keep the time that belongs to you for the purpose of spending it at your discretion. When you feel guilty about saying no, repeat to yourself that your time is exactly that, yours, and you are not wronging anybody by exercising your privilege to employ it as you wish.

 At the end of each chapter, there’s a list of questions to work through—things to write in a journal, or just to think more about. I’ve done a couple of these, and am looking forward to some of the exercises in introspection.

I came away from this with so much to think about, but what struck me most was the description of attention as “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” My mind wanders a lot, and it’s hard for me to tune some things out. What happens when I walk through bookstores or libraries is actually a good, if crazy, example: There are times when I have to physically shield my eyes because I walk down an aisle and can’t keep from looking at the books as I pass. I pull my eyes away from one side of the aisle and they’re immediately caught by something on the other side, back and forth the whole way until I reach the end, and it gives me a headache the way staring out your car window sometimes can. It’s a little absurd.

Why does it seem to happen so often, this thing where I find thoughtful and useful ideas embedded in grouchy moralizing bullshit? If people want to share the small things that happen to them throughout the day, if that makes them feel closer to people they don’t actually see every day, that doesn’t prove their lives are shallow and meaningless. If some people feel respectful of other people’s cultures and believe that that other customs are as valid as their own, that doesn’t make them morally spineless. This attitude of Forni’s makes me sure I won’t pick up anything else he’s written, but since I’ve already read this, I can at least say that there are certainly points worth considering in the quest to live a more meaningful life.

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