Sep 26
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I recently read Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, a thoughtful book by William Powers, which grew out of an essay he wrote in 2007. As a researcher, I spend so much of my time online. This book helped me realize that I need to be more vigilant about taking regular breaks from the Internet. The Powers family institutes an Internet Sabbath every weekend. They turn off the household modem Friday night and (since they don’t own smart phones) check their email inboxes again on Monday morning. Our sense of well being depends on routinely unplugging. Our minds need the time and space to process all the information we’re reading and navigating online. Our thoughts need to wander.
        Hamlet’s BlackBerry opens with this beautiful quote by Emerson: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it,” a perfect frame for the book and now part of Quotenik. I asked William if there is another quote that has made a significant impact on the way he thinks about something. He generously shared these thoughts:


As I think you guessed from reading my book, I do have a lifelong relationship with quotations. I have numerous notebooks of them, as well as digital files. I also underline copiously in all books that I read, making special marks for passages I want to return to for saving, memorizing, etc. I’ve just finished a great biography of Emerson that was so full of treasures of this sort, I had to devise a special code just for that book.

        So to answer your question, choosing one is not easy. I just read an early Iris Murdoch novel that had one nice sentence I can’t seem to forget, and I see she’s not yet in your database. It’s from the novel Under the Net:

       “Like a fish that swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure, supporting pressure of my own life—ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.”

        Why do I like that one sentence? I should note that it comes in the final pages, after the narrator/protagonist Jake Donaghue has essentially screwed up his whole life. There’s a long interior monologue that, in its cheesy philosophizing, reminded me of that awful ’70s pop song, “Alone Again, Naturally.”

        Then I came on the sentence I sent you, where Jake likens himself to a fish swimming in deep water, the water being the reassuring feeling of his own life— flawed though it is—pressing in on him and sort of embracing him from every side. It’s a very clean, well-put together sentence. Best of all, I recognized it as an idea I’d had myself, but here Murdoch was stating (and depicting) it so much better than I ever had.

        To put it another way, as I read that sentence, I felt a tingle of recognition, as if I were looking in the mirror for the first time in months and seeing a part of myself I hadn’t fully recognized before.

        For me, it redeemed the schmaltzy ending, and indeed, the whole book. I instantly emailed it across the house to my wife, who also loved it.


Thanks to William for sharing this quote and context, and for starting the Iris Murdoch file in the library.


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