Depth Wish


A couple of years ago a man came by the office at our request to give us some advice about using our Web site and e-mail in a somewhat more aggressive way—meaning, to do anything with them at all. We had heard that this fellow was smart, but we didn’t know just how smart until he held up one of the several issues of the Scholar we had sent him and said, “This is just what the Internet is creating a hunger for,” or words to that effect. His point was that the Internet’s fragmentary, out-of-context, insubstantial, unsubstantiated overabundance was driving, or was about to drive, readers toward sites that offer something more than random information or mindless chatter, and toward a magazine whose pieces attempt to make a sustained argument about something meaningful. We were flattered, of course, that someone who had not previously heard of the Scholar, and a Web visionary no less, could be so enthusiastic about the magazine. We’ve even put into practice a few of his ideas, feeding in a modest way the hunger he identified—or at least imagined.

Forgive me if I sound like Wolf Blitzer touting “the best political team on television” (a dubious distinction, if true), but I hope there’s a larger point here than self-promotion: You don’t have to be a Luddite or a reactionary to feel that the Web, however wide, spawns a definite desire for depth. Two pieces herein, about very different subjects, intersect on this point, agreeing that the distractions of the Web, and of new technology in general, make the need for contemplation more urgent than ever. Both of them focus on the word concentration.

William Deresiewicz, whose 2008 article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” has attracted hundreds of thousands of readers to our Web site (proving our visionary visitor right), is back, this time with a speech he delivered last fall to the plebe class at West Point entitled “Solitude and Leadership.” As attentive as he was to the young officers in training in his audience, he also has useful things to say to the rest of us. Deresiewicz suggests, for instance, that our leaders’ inability to be alone with their thoughts accounts for some of their puzzling flaws. And it’s clear the faults are not just in our leaders but in ourselves.

Sven Birkerts, one of the wisest literary critics at work today, sees technology as an assault on the ability to concentrate that is necessary for serious reading. But in his piece, “Reading in a Digital Age,” he takes his argument a step further, suggesting that the novel is both the Internet’s opposite and “a field for thinking.” Its purpose, he believes, is “to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself.”

Wow. I’m sold. Concentration is the way. Now if I can just find an app for that.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up