What It’s About:
In an overloaded, superficial, technological world, in which almost everything and everybody is judged by its usefulness, where can we turn for escape, lasting pleasure, contemplation, or connection to others? While many forms of leisure meet these needs, Zena Hitz writes, few experiences are so fulfilling as the inner life, whether that of a bookworm, an amateur astronomer, a birdwatcher, or someone who takes a deep interest in one of countless other subjects. Drawing on inspiring examples, from Socrates and Augustine to Malcolm X and Elena Ferrante, and from films to Hitz's own experiences as someone who walked away from elite university life in search of greater fulfillment, Lost in Thought is a passionate and timely reminder that a rich life is a life rich in thought.
I loved the start of this book and flew through the first half of it, but the second half was pretty slow. I am fascinated by the premise but the cases that she used as examples didn’t hold my interest. (Which I guess is to say, I didn’t think the examples—especially as they grew more religious—to be convincing in a way that built to a compelling case for people in general to cultivate an inner life. Me? I’m already sold. 😜 )
That said, the premise and the early points she makes about the value of an intellectual life were worth the read for me.
- Hitz makes a comparison between a “vehicle for achievement” and a “form of service” which I loved. It’s a very simple way to capture my frustration with academic life: everything is focused on the big “vehicles for achievement” that look good (like publishing in peer reviewed journals, getting grants, editing a journal, etc) rather than on “form of service” that might actually make an impact (writing for a general audience, community projects, engaged teaching, etc).
- I found Hitz’s description of growing up in a family of readers and thinkers to be both familiar and aspiration. She says: “My family did not undertake intellectual practices and concerns as a means to an end. They did not consider them to be preparation for life, but rather a way of spending one’s time that had its worth in itself.” Yes, please!
- Hitz’s primary question here is: what is the value of an intellectual life? She considers various answers including: as achievement (and thus intertwined with “the drama of reputation”); as leisure (”worthwhile for its own sake and that could constitute the culmination of a life”); as social change (”a form of influence on “real” events”); as self-preservation (to nurture “a human core that is a refuge from suffering”); as repreive (to “set aside concerns for social ease or advancement”); as personal sovereignty (”recover one’s real value when it is denied recognition by the power plays and careless judgments of social life”);
- She’s wrestling with the idea of learning and cultivating an intellectual life as a matter of process or outcome. As she describes, when you become an academic, thinking that you are sinking into a life of reading and thinking and discussing, you often find that academic life is focused on the products of the intellect. Which leads to a rude awakening: “Along the way, my focus had shifted—without my noticing—to the outcomes of my work rather than the work itself.” Hitz bring us back to the beauty of engaging in the intellectual life for the process and enjoyment of it.
Quotes from the book
My frustration with my work, with the focus of my life, thus expanded both in breadth and depth. When I looked to the outside world, I saw tremendous suffering and disorder to which I could make no discernible difference. Nearer by, the shallowness of my academic life became gradually more obvious. Either I sought approval or status by performing well at the expense of others, or in small groups my fellow academics and I explained to one another our own superiority—our difference from the dumb, the wrong, the bad, and the ugly.
Intellectual activity nurtures an inner life, a human core that is a refuge from suffering as much as it is a resource for reflection for its own sake.
How does one become entranced by the rewards of one’s work to the point of neglecting its ultimate purpose?
Aristotle argued that there must be something beyond work—the use of leisure, for the sake of which we work and without which our work is in vain. Leisure is not merely recreation, which we might undertake for the sake of work—to relax or rest before beginning to labor anew. Rather, leisure is an inward space whose use could count as the culmination of all our endeavors. For Aristotle, only contemplation—the activity of seeing and understanding and savoring the world as it is—could be the ultimately satisfying use of leisure.
Now the members of this small group have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they have also seen the madness of the multitude and realized, in a word, that no one does anything sane, sound, or right in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive. Instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends, and be useless both to themselves and others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone. For all these reasons I say the philosopher remains quiet and minds his own affairs. Like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, seeing others filled with lawlessness, he is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content. —PLATO, REPUBLIC 6, 496D
Intellectual life is a way to recover one’s real value when it is denied recognition by the power plays and careless judgments of social life.
All in all, I am glad I read the book but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. There’s a lot of good thinking in the book and I appreciate the deep consideration of what it means to invest in an intellectual life. But it’s pretty religious and clearly not written for a general audience (oddly, that it something she warns against).
I’m rating it a 3/5 because while I love all the information that it contains, it’s not really an enjoyable read.
I give it:
✅ Good for nerdy, intellectual types