Reading during the COVID Pandemic

Elayne Allen is a Baylor University graduate and research assistant in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies Department of the American Enterprise Institute. She participated in the 2020 Scala Foundation and Pepperdine School of Public Policy DC Summer Scholars Program “Humanizing Education Policy: A Study of Foundational Philosophies.”

This blog originally appeared on May 23, 2020, on The American Interest blog. Re-posted with permission.

Quarantine has given many people newfound free time, and the bookworms among us are relishing it. The proliferation of “quarantine reading lists” feels like an exhortation to abandon the black hole called Twitter and crack open our dusty copies of intimidating marathon books like The Brothers Karamazov or Middlemarch.

But Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College and author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, is doubtful this will happen. When I called her up to discuss the book,  she told me that “since quarantine,” she’s been seeing people spend “more time on social media, not less, because they are lonely and afraid.”

Lost in Thought, a broad reflection on the worth of learning for human beings, shows the unusual discipline needed to undertake serious study in isolation. Malcom X in prison and Einstein during his idle hours at the patent office both exhibited near superhuman focus. “For someone else,” Hitz writes, Einstein’s office clerkship “might have been the launching pad for a sparkling career in the civil service.” Very few of us use our time spent alone to master anything, except what is expedient to our careers. Even the “‘masters’ of the servant class have no leisure either. The slave is a slave of a slave.” These words are jarring, but true: Our slavish lust for success and money leaves little time for us to pause and investigate the core of reality.

Perhaps if studying in isolation lacks broad appeal, the opposite—displaying one’s learning before an audience, as “public intellectuals” do—can spur contemplation. But, Hitz explains, this is often equally detrimental to a life of study. Thirst for acclaim and status crowd out genuine wonder. Hitz has experienced these difficulties firsthand: Finding that the pressures of academic acclaim corrupted her thirst for knowledge, she left a distinguished academic career to join the faculty of St. John’s College, a small, non-elite school with an intensive great books curriculum.

Both phenomena—the apathetic multitudes and the preening pedants—make clear the startling fragility of the intellectual life. But Hitz’s reflections about the dangers of prestige and public writing also suggest ways to foster a serious inner life, and why doing so is a worthwhile endeavor.

What makes intellectual activity so special that it is worth spending some quarantine time engaging in it? Why does it matter whether or not we pause from our daily toils to investigate life’s hidden truths? Hitz provokingly argues that intellectual activity is as essential (perhaps more) to a fulfilled life as “cooking, cleaning, or raising children” or even “the administration of justice.” Furthermore, it’s something we are all capable of: “The love of learning is general among human beings and pursued in a variety of ways and degrees.”

What is common to all leisured learning is that it “culminates in something satisfying.” The intellectual life does not have “a determinate content,” but is oriented toward “the universal beyond the particular, the reality behind the illusion, the beauty beneath the ugliness. . . . [W]e seek the pattern behind the instances, the instance hidden by the pattern.” It directs us to a clearer perception of reality’s elemental features.

The power to perceive these features sets human beings apart from the rest of nature. Pascal wrote: “A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill [man]. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies.” For Hitz, this apperception of majestic truths is “the splendor of humanity.”

Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to a life of learning. Many people are ensnared by demanding jobs and unstable situations, and are easily distracted by sparkling promises of happiness and fulfillment, which endless advertising and social media sear into our consciousness. Serious books and quiet reflection lack immediate appeal.

The culprit isn’t just apathy, though; it’s the constant churn of careerism. We turn to mindless recreation not because we are feckless dullards, but because our professional lives are so grueling that our wearied minds and bodies demand respite. “Free time is mere recovery time,” Charlie Tyson wrote in The Hedgehog Review in 2018, and a labor intensive society can make work addictive, a cognitive compulsion beyond our control.

At the same time, Hitz acknowledges that some impediments to learning are voluntary. “Our desires for truth, for understanding, for insight are in constant conflict with other desires: our desires for social acceptance or an easy life, a particular personal goal or a desirable political outcome.” This is why “intellectual life is a discipline: the product of hard work and practice in a certain sort of self-denial.” External, social pressures can hinder a well-tended inner life, but so can our own bad habits.

This is especially a problem for academics and intellectuals, because their job—thinking through and producing ideas—uses the same faculties of reason as contemplative leisure. It is therefore difficult for them to tell the difference between genuine contemplation and grandiose attention-seeking, not just in others but in themselves, which can in turn foster a sense of self-doubt. In 2016, for example, the pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante told the New Yorker that by writing novels, she had essentially “assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know.” Perhaps her decision to use a pseudonym is her attempt to free her work from the corrosive effects of ambition and pride as much as possible—to gain some modicum of assurance about her own motivations.

That struggle is reflected in the four Neapolitan novels that made Ferrante famous. The tetralogy trace the lifelong friendship of two girls, Lenu and Lila, who were raised in an impoverished, violent postwar neighborhood of Naples. Though both girls far outpace their classmates in school, only Lenu continues her education through college. Lila’s ends after elementary school thanks to her erratic and turbulent family, even as Lenu goes on to develop an illustrious literary career, escaping the violence and chaos of her neighborhood. Meanwhile, most of her childhood companions stay in the neighborhood and continue competing for dominance through violence and exploitation. Often, when Lenu revisits the neighborhood as an adult armed with diplomas, she scorns these endless conflicts as petty and infantile.

But there is a lurking suspicion that Lenu has not shed her lust for superiority and power. She has merely cloaked it in decorous language and redirected it into more scholarly competitions. In Lost in Thought, Hitz points to an apt passage where Lila maliciously but accurately criticizes the inflated political-speak Lenu uses to gain approval from her more educated friends. As Hitz puts it, “She is less a street fighter than a social climber,” competing within Italy’s educated class rather than the neighborhood—but competing all the same.

Lila, by contrast, nourishes her creative imagination in almost total isolation, except for the glimpses she shares with Lenu. At first glance, it might seem that she is Hitz’s ideal intellectual, alone in contemplative and creative euphoria, while Lenu is her status-seeking opposite. But Hitz suggests otherwise: “art requires spontaneous contemplative fire like Lila’s as well as Lenu’s social ambition, her wish to be seen.” It was Lila and Lenu’s collaborative energy that produced their art and intellectual work, and allowed them to transfigure the ugliness of their surroundings. It’s also what their physical separation imperils.

When we encounter a book, we encounter the words and ideas of another mind, our temporary instructor. As Hitz put it when we spoke: “Learning is inherently done with other human beings; of course, they may be dead, and in that case it is done through their writings.”

The communal aspects of learning hint at why quarantine study is so difficult: Most of us need a physical community of students in order to learn. At St. John’s, Hitz’s undergraduate courses “proceeded without agendas, the discussion driven by the living questions that we and our teacher brought to the room.” Professors, known as tutors, claimed only to be more advanced learners, and adopted a humbler status to encourage an atmosphere of unhindered inquiry. So infectious was the intellectual atmosphere at St. John’s that seminar discussions “spilled over into discussion on the steps, on the quad, at the bar.” Learning and leisure were woven together, into the fabric of daily life—and it is this togetherness that physical isolation disrupts.

In a sense, though, remote learning is just an intensification of trends that have plagued higher education for decades. “One of the things that has gone wrong with colleges,” Hitz told me, “is that they are so non-communaland anonymous.” Prior to St. John’s, Hitz had taught at more traditional universities. “I got so bored in the lecture room, regurgitating information to students.” The world of ideas, she explained,

are best passed down through face-to-face, flesh and blood relationships. Learning serious material involves habits and virtues, not just information to be digested. . . . Not even science, which requires a lot of memorization, operates like that. It is a way of inquiry, a habit of mind.

Learning, Hitz realized, “must be nurtured person to person or it will largely disappear from ordinary human experience.” C.S. Lewis considers friendship an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds,” that ask each other: “Do you see this same truth?” Jockeying for status (as public intellectuals are wont to do) or scoring points in a debate therefore vitiates the contemplative project. Intellectual pursuits are properly undertaken with others, as friends, searching for hidden truths to be relished together.

We struggle to check off our quarantine reading lists, then, because we were not made for isolation. Without company, the pursuit of truth is a lonely, arduous, and even self-defeating task. Let us hope it does not remain so for long.