- The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
This very brief book is a “TED original,” one of a series of “short books about big ideas” offered by the nonprofit best known for its talks delivered in the style of a Silicon Valley product launch. Its subject is the virtues of retreat and “sitting still” in an “age of distraction.” Much useful advice is offered, generally in the form of anecdotes about famous or successful people (or about Iyer himself) spending time in monasteries or observing some sort of Sabbath, either traditional or “Internet.” The benefits are said to include such measurable goods as lower blood pressure and a “level of happiness” hitherto uncharted by MRI scans. The advice is sensible and likely to be valuable to anyone who takes it. And yet the whole endeavor—the packaging, the bite-sized wisdom, the benevolent and bloodless style of self-help—sets my teeth on edge. Seeing the revolutionary power of stillness reduced (as it must be in such a project) to a spa treatment (I am being slightly unfair but not by much) is dispiriting. Seeing it offered as a panacea for corporate stagnation is even more depressing. As with all therapeutic prescriptions, the value of the “cure” is haunted by the inevitable need to return to what made us sick. The Art of Stillness can thus seem to serve the distractions it purports to escape.
Clark Davis is professor of English at the University of Denver and author of Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement; After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of “Moby-Dick”; and It Starts with Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing.