Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture

How nineteenth-century “disciplines of attention” anticipated the contemporary concern with mindfulness and being “spiritual but not religious”


Published (US):
Jan 31, 2023
Published (UK):
Mar 28, 2023
5.5 x 8.5 in.
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Today, we’re driven to distraction, our attention overwhelmed by the many demands upon it—most of which emanate from our beeping and blinking digital devices. This may seem like a decidedly twenty-first-century problem, but, as Caleb Smith shows in this elegantly written, meditative work, distraction was also a serious concern in American culture two centuries ago. In Thoreau’s Axe, Smith explores the strange, beautiful archives of the nineteenth-century attention revival—from a Protestant minister’s warning against frivolous thoughts to Thoreau’s reflections on wakefulness at Walden Pond. Smith examines how Americans came to embrace attention, mindfulness, and other ways of being “spiritual but not religious,” and how older Christian ideas about temptation and spiritual devotion endure in our modern ideas about distraction and attention.

Smith explains that nineteenth-century worries over attention developed in response to what were seen as the damaging mental effects of new technologies and economic systems. A “wandering mind,” once diagnosed, was in need of therapy or rehabilitation. Modeling his text after nineteenth-century books of devotion, Smith offers close readings of twenty-eight short passages about attention. Considering social reformers who designed moral training for the masses, religious leaders who organized Christian revivals, and spiritual seekers like Thoreau who experimented with regimens of simplified living and transcendental mysticism, Smith shows how disciplines of attention became the spiritual exercises of a distracted age.

Thoreau and the business of distraction