Illustration by Tyler Varsell
The problem of distraction holds us rapt. In the pages of newspapers and magazines, our inability to pay attention is a crisis in itself that also clings parasitically to other causes of collective concern—technology, learning loss, mental health, democracy’s erosion, even climate change. This crisis, we’re told, is a crisis of the present: it is less often argued than taken for granted that ours is a uniquely enervating media landscape. Never, the pundits note ruefully, have there been more competing demands on our attention than exist today.
In his new book, Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture, Caleb Smith recovers the historical roots of this emphatically contemporary discourse. “The more life accelerated, the more attention was debased,” Smith writes, paraphrasing not yesterday’s op-ed column but Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s Axe immerses America’s most famous exemplar of slow living in a throng of nineteenth-century crusaders, evangelicals, and eccentrics, each of whom elaborated their own analyses of distraction as symptom and attention as cure. Registering the social and psychological disruptions wrought by an industrializing economy, these writers promoted “regimens for cultivating perception, concentration, and presence of mind.”
This “self-culture” cut across political lines, inflecting school and prison reform, industrial labor discipline, chattel slavery, and “white Christian nationalism” as well as the militant abolitionism of Nat Turner and the democratic sensuality of Walt Whitman. Advocates of a burgeoning capitalism saw the honing of attention as a way to make workers more efficient and compliant. But radicals like Thoreau hoped to use it to elude or even transcend the hegemony of the market, preparing the self for higher ends. Distraction, similarly, might appear as either an evil to be tamed or a subversive form of “mental truancy.”
To capture the heterogeneity of these discourses of attention, Smith’s book unfolds over twenty-eight brief chapters, each anchored by a quotation from a different attention revivalist. Smith borrows this form from “an old religious genre, the book of devotion,” which reprinted scriptural passages alongside the author’s meditations in order to facilitate a worshipper’s close study.
In the spirit of Smith’s multivocal approach, this folio assembles three responses to Thoreau’s Axe alongside a new reflection by Smith himself. Our invitation was open-ended, and yet, as Smith notes, all four writers implicate themselves in the challenges raised by his book. In essays by Daegan Miller, Ana Schwartz, and Laura Dassow Walls, Thoreau’s Axe vies for attention with a hand-mown lawn, a classroom of inscrutable students, and an imperiled marsh-estuary. Each writer keeps one eye on the nineteenth century and the other on the anxieties, aspirations, and investments that swirl around the problem of distraction today.
There may be some irony in publishing this folio on the internet, distraction’s ground zero. Like the brief serial chapters of Thoreau’s Axe and the devotional books that inspired it, the essays gathered here make a bid for the reader’s attention—but they also assent to its wandering.
—Sam Huber, Senior Editor