Thoreau, Adorno, and Bonhoeffer on the Internet

For the talk I gave about the Internet at the n+1 panel on Tuesday night, I brainstormed by collecting quotes. I only ended up using one of them, and now have on hand a relatively unused miniature commonplace book about the Internet. Well, not exactly about the Internet, because it didn’t exist when most of the writers below wrote. They were in fact concerned with such topics as readerly hygiene in the face of textual surfeit and the threat that mass culture poses to the hierarchies that traditionally defended intellectual and artistic labor. Close enough for my purposes. Emphases added.

Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell’s Life, 1778:

Virgil is less talked of than Pope, and Homer is less talked of than Virgil; but they are not less admired. We must read what the world reads at the moment. It has been maintained that this superfoetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused. . . .

Henry D. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849:

It would be worth the while to select our reading, for books are the society we keep; to read only the serenely true; never statistics, nor fiction, nor news, nor reports, nor periodicals, but only great poems, and when they failed, read them again, or perchance write more. . . . Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all. . . . Certainly we do not need to be soothed and entertained always like children. He who resorts to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if he took a nap.

Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, 1854:

. . . there is an illusion about [modern improvements]; there is not always a positive advance. . . . They are but improved means to an unimproved end. . . . We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943″:

Unless we have the courage to fight for a revival of wholesome reserve between man and man, we shall perish in an anarchy of human values. . . . Socially it means the renunciation of all place-hunting, a break with the cult of the “star,” an open eye both upwards and downwards, especially in the choice of one’s more intimate friends, and pleasure in private life as well as courage to enter public life. Culturally it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951:

The fascinated eagerness to consume the latest process of the day not only leads to indifference towards the matter transmitted by the process, but encourages stationary rubbish and calculated idiocy. It confirms the old kitsch in ever new paraphrases as haute nouveauté.

George W. S. Trow, “In the Context of No-Context,” 1980:

The middle distance fell away, so the grid (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it. People began to lose a sense of what distance was and of what the usefulness of distance might be.