Eva

Introduction

“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo.

This was certainly true when I founded The British Toast Rack Society and had the powerful idea of enlisting our esteemed members of The Bored to keenly and studiously observe and contemplate toast racks.

Under my bold visionary leadership, boredom set in quickly, as so eloquently documented by the incomparable English photographer Pom Ogilvy in her Series on Toast Rack Boredom.

As the Chairman of the Bored, I then asked our Bored President, Rory Veevers-Carter, to share his thoughts on my visionary leadership and this is what he wrote in response:

The British Snail Watching Society, circa 1946

The founder of The British Toast Rack Society, Karim Ajania, appears to have modeled our society upon The British Snail-Watching Society originally founded in 1945 by renowned US diplomat, international journalist and compleat conchophilist, Peter J. Henniker-Heaton.

Our British Toast Rack Society founder, Mr. Ajania, seems to think that observing toast racks is on a par with observing snails. Well, I am not so sure about that. I have often observed snails and find them far more riveting than toast racks. Snails, at least, move…

Toast racks, well, they just sit there, don’t they? Motionless. Inanimate. Boring.

I don’t know about you but I find toast racks spectacularly boring. There are few activities more boring than to ‘keenly and studiously observe’ a toast rack. Consequently, in my capacity as the Bored President, I have duly delegated the observance of toast racks to The Bored.

Personally, I would much rather go fishing than observe toast racks.

 — Rory Veevers-Carter, President of the Bored

This first shocking single barrel shot across the bough from he of the double-barrel name, caused me to wonder what second such slug at my leadership awaited me.

A lesser leader would have buckled under this mounting minacious mutiny but, undeterred, I did what I always do in an arduous circumstance: I quietly contemplated my toast rack.

I have always found that the neatly rimmed divisions of a toast rack help me to compartmentalize my thinking. It very gradualy occurred to me however, that the exceptional circumstance of my leadership vision being challenged required an equally exceptional toast rack to be contemplated.

And so I telephoned Dr. David Park Curry, who has a PhD from Yale University in Art History, and who has been the curator of the most exceptional toast rack in all of Art History, the magnificent Articulated Toast Rack designed by artist Christopher Dresser (1834-1904).

Contoured Japanese footbridge painted by Claude Monet, 1897

“Well,” proffered David ponderously, “I have spent some time contemplating the articulated toast rack by Christopher Dresser and it occurs to me that there is wisdom in the contours.”

“The contours?” I pressed, with a growing anticipation.

“Yes, the contours,” said David, “You see, Dresser was a close friend of the impressionist painter Claude Monet, and often visited Monet and strolled with him in his garden at Giverny.”

“What has this to do with the contours?” I asked, patiently.

“Well, when Dresser saw the contours of the Japanese footbridge that gracefully glides over the water lily pond, he was so taken by the breathtaking beauty of the contours, that he designed the articulated toast rack as a tribute to the contoured bridge in Monet’s garden.”

“Fascinating David! But how do ‘contours’ help me in my current conundrum of having my leadership vision for The Bored being challenged?”

“Well, I would have thought it was obvious Karim: Just as Dresser took his inspiration from a masterful artist such as Monet, you, Karim, now need to vigilantly seek renewed inspiration for your leadership of The Bored from a masterful expert on how to be bored.”

Contoured articulated Toast Rack designed by Christopher Dresser, 1899

What Dr. David Park Curry was too gracious to point out directly, but what became imminently clear to me, is that I had erred. I had tried a touch too forcefully to impose my leadership vision upon The Bored based upon my personal predilection toward contemplating toast racks.

I clearly needed a larger, more comprehensive vision, preferably from one who was more masterful in the intricacies of how to be bored.

“To err is human, to forgive, divine”, mused the English poet Alexander Pope in his immortal poem An Essay on Criticism.

Well, I had certainly erred in my misguided vision for The Bored, and so I both forgave and thanked our Bored President for so boldly pointing out the unpalatable truth to The Bored.

Onward and upward then. Where to find the Claude Monet to my Christopher Dresser?

Where to find a learned and lettered highbrow, a cultured and erudite expert, on how to be bored?

“Audaces fortuna iuvat” (fortune favors the bold), as the Latin adage goes.

As we all know, few things take more boldness and bravery these days, than opening up a newspaper and reading it. With a tentative trepidation, I opened up my copy of The New York Times and very fortunately came across this book review of How To Be Bored by Dr. Eva Hoffman.

Eureka!

— Karim Ajania, Chairman of the Bored

 

Eva Hoffman, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson © 2009

 

Karim: Eva, you begin your book “How To Be Bored” with this:

“This is a book about a problem which is elusive partly because it is so pervasive.

“It is a problem of excessive busyness and overfilled schedules, and their effects on our mental and emotional lives.”

You go on to say: “We live in a hectic, hyperactive, over stimulated age.”

When I began reading “How To Be Bored”, I had just completed reading the most recent book by Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of AccelerationsDo you feel “optimistic” Eva, in this “age of accelerations”?

Eva: I think with enormous phenomena like the onset of digital technologies – a life and world-altering development – there’s in a sense no point in feeling either optimistic or pessimistic.

One needs to understand what’s going on, and try to grapple with it. However: I do feel somewhat optimistic in one respect.

In the past, whenever a new technology – the steam engine with its trains, television – was introduced into the world, people felt overwhelmed and frightened by it. Then they learnt how to use it without letting it run their lives.

Digital technologies are more ubiquitous and invade us more deeply; but nevertheless, I have some hope that people will learn how to use them more moderately, and to gain some control over them – rather than allow themselves to be controlled by them.

Pencils for Africa teacher Chyah Weitzman in Samburu, Kenya

Karim: As a schoolteacher, I am particularly concerned about FOMA (fear of missing out) which you address in your book. 

I co-teach a middle school program here in California called Pencils for Africa with Art Teacher Chyah Weitzman and we encounter FOMO constantly amongst the children (ages 9 to 13) that we teach. It really is almost painful to watch. FOMO affects children at this age with an anxious intensity, in that it appears to enforce a need for them to nervously look at their smart phones and computers so that they keep up to date with the latest news and events, and do not feel left out.

When I was their age, my teachers would often reprimand me for starring out of the classroom window and daydreaming.

As a teacher, I can think of nothing more desirable – and delightful – than to have the children in the classroom daydream and just ‘be bored’: to have them cultivate a relaxed peace of mind, a sense of wonderment and a touch of whimsy.

Is this still possible in our digital age, Eva? Or am I just daydreaming?

Eva: I don’t see why mobile phones and personal computers shouldn’t be barred from the classroom. Surely, the very point of the classroom is to create a space free of distractions.

I realise that children first deprived of their devices might get quite anxious; but then the challenge would be to absorb their attention in other – and more interesting — ways.

Eventually, they might get used to quieter time, and might even enjoy daydreaming occasionally! I think there should be an energetic movement of people involved in education to make the classroom a digital-free zone.

Professor Richard Gombrich seated next to His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Karim: Bored Member Richard Gombrich, formerly the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Baliol College, Oxford University, and currently Editor of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, does not like exams. Richard firmly stated to me in my interview with him:

“I dislike exams intensely. I regard them as the enemy of education.”

Eva, you state this in your chapter entitled “Challenges of Choices”:

“…I want to remind us of what the early philosophers understood so well: the value and salutary power of reflection and self-knowledge. These are worth developing for their own sake; but I believe they are also necessary if we are to replace the excitement of hectic and sometimes aimless activity with full consciousness and purposeful engagement.”

I wonder if our modern educational systems, in addition to current proliferations of digital technologies, have contributed to the added anxiety that young students I regularly encounter seem to suffer from across the board: from the middle school students I teach who are affected by FOMO, to the university students I know – even those who study the Humanities.

Richard said this to me in my interview with him regarding the Humanities:

“If Humanities can teach us anything, it is that humanity cannot be expressed by percentages. The basic requirement of a university education should surely be to teach intellectual honesty.”

Eva, what are your thoughts on the effects of “accelerations” on Humanities education, having taught at institutions such as the Townsend Centre for Humanities at UC Berkeley?

Eva: Traditionally, much of humanities studies ought to involve reading and thinking in depth, of having a long attention span; how can this survive in an age when so many facts (or ‘alternative facts’) are thrust at students through their electronic devices? Is the information overload, much of it delivered in fragments or tweets, destroying the attention spans of a generation?

Well, of course I agree that meaningful knowledge cannot be quantified.

And yes, I do think that the age of tweets is undermining students’ attention span, their ability to judge information, and their critical thinning skills. I understand that books are rarely assigned anymore – even at the university level. (I fortunately missed this particular phenomenon; and in my more recent teaching certainly assigned books to students).

Again, I think there needs to be vigorous push-back from within the academy against all these phenomena. At the same time, I don’t think all exams should be banned. It is important to accumulate a knowledge-base of information, historical facts, the ability to handle data or to understand scientific advances, before one can think properly.

At the university level, though, it is of course reflection and in-depth discussion – as well as reading those long form texts and writing (your very own, un-plagiarised) essays which is the way to expand knowledge and understanding.

Kevin Ashton, author of How To Fly A Horse

Karim: Bored Member Kevin Ashton, in his book How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery writes:

“The most important thing creators do is work.

The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Eva, you write in your chapter entitled “Creative Play”:

“Work contains elements of play, and in order to be pleasurable, creative play has to contain an element of strenuous effort – of concentration and discipline.”

It appears that both you and Kevin perceive a work ethic within the pursuit of a creative endeavor. How do you see the symbiosis between work and creativity in a way that can be fulfilling?

Eva: I’m not advocating the work ethic in creativity as much as self-discipline.

I think creative work involves a double movement:

First, allowing yourself free play, free association, musing, mulling things over; then the disciplined process of thinking hard about how to impose structure on your materials, or derive conclusions from them – in other words, driving hard to give your work reality and shape.

This involves intense effort!

Richard Schaper, Member of The Bored, The British Toast Rack Society

Karim: Bored Member Richard Schaper, a Rhodes Scholar, who studied Ethics and Theology at Yale University, and who trained with a Buddhist monk, before Richard then cloistered as a Benedictine monk for nine years, says in my interview with him:

“Seeking in the death camps to discern the root of why some fellow prisoners’ eyes grew vacant and they perished while others in similar circumstances managed to survive, Viktor Frankl came to realize that those who survived did so because they found a shred of meaning to which to cling.”

One of the ideas with which you conclude your book Eva, is this one:

“A sense of meaning which allows us to be fully alive, comes from our involvement with others and engagement in the world; and it comes, above all, from within.”

Eva, how can we find depth of meaning in this age rapid of accelerations?

Eva: I have used this Frankl quote myself on various occasions…

The question of meaning is the most difficult one of all, especially in our secular times; but I think that for us, a sense of meaning is derived from commitment.

You have to know what you value; what you honour in yourself, and what relationships and activities you cherish and want to nurture.

Then – perhaps as in the creative process – comes the discipline of sticking to it, and pursuing your values and your purposes without letting yourself be dispersed – and in a sense, wasted –  by the endless distractions our world offers.

Professor Robert Calder, Member of The Bored

Karim: Bored Member Robert Calder, Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, is the author and editor of ten books, including one of my favorite biographies, Willie: The Life of W. Somerset MaughamBob shared this note with me when I discussed your book with him:

“For those of us in our seventies, it is important to remove clutter from out lives, and this includes clutter available to us on the internet or television.

“I marvel at what I can find – even for my research – on the internet, and I use it for so many things, but I am fighting not to be taken prisoner by the seeming need to always be right-up-to-the-moment on everything.

I’m the despair of my children because my wife and I finally broke down and bought an I-Phone a few months ago, but I often don’t walk around with it or have it on all the time! I feel that there is nothing that I need to respond to walking across the street or in the aisle of our grocery store.

“And I would never interrupt a conversation with a friend in order to consult some message coming through on my phone.”

Eva, what are your thoughts on Bob’s own thoughts above?

Eva: I think he has got things exactly right!

Karim: The chief book critic of The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, recently interviewed President Barack Obama about his love of books. Obama said:

“There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies…

“At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

You touch upon the same sense of universality in “How To Be Bored”:

“The experience of absorption in a book is both very private and very universal”.

Eva, can reading books be a universally interesting way to be bored?

Eva: At this point, I have to note that the title of my book is slightly whimsical and tongue in cheek.

Really, what I want to say is that we need to stop being horribly afraid of being bored, and give ourselves over to activities which require quietness and full absorption.

I think The Book is a time-tested, universally recognized way of achieving that, and of extending our minds and imaginations towards others.

Reading a book, allowing yourself to be transported into its world, is also deeply pleasurable; this also is universally understood and acknowledged.