On reading: The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy. Michael Foley. London: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Reading is, in many respects, an occasion for thinking. We read a passage that prompts us to ponder, look into the middle distance and weave that gossamer web of dream, memory and association which is, perhaps, the actual experience sought when we take up a book and withdraw to some quiet corner. Literacy researcher, Maryanne Wolf argues that the “secret heart of reading … is the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those which came before.” What she is writing about is deep reading – the reading we do when we concentrate on one text for an extended period of time and devote our attention to it. Yet our culture seems ever more hell-bent on ‘skimming’, hopping from one micro-text to another as we scan, browse, update and forage in the media landscape. Even when we are offline, we are information hunter-gatherers, consuming thousands of advertisements a day and reading texts largely with an instrumental purpose – -we are looking for data or engaged in socialisation but precisely what we are not doing is entering some quiet place where imagination and language go out to play.

The problem with only skimming, to the exclusion of other, deeper forms of reading is that the brain “loses its associative ‘dimension’ … the profound generativity of the reading brain” (Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.) Wolf argues that we need to become “bitextual” or “multitextual” and, like those with two or more languages who ‘code-switch’ between different tongues, become mindfully aware of the need to cultivate the different modes of reading that are available to us. This, she reminds us, is necessary if we would like to continue to have the benefits that have accrued from the silent, meditative reading that was the model of old: capacities for new thoughts arrived at independently, for reflection, for association, and for imaginative synthesis out of which new ideas and insights emerge. If we are too busy clicking and scanning and scrolling, too hyped-up from the pressures of multi-tasking, to ever switch codes to this other form of relating to language and meaning, we will have lost something, even as we gain the advantages of new literacies. The deeper reading experience is a gateway to the deeper ways of knowing. What’s more, there is a clear correlation emerging between excessive ‘screen time’ and problems with higher-order thinking: “Deep reading creates attentiveness; heavy viewing destroys it. And this may have consequences at both ends of life. In early childhood, heavy viewing inhibits the development of brain networks for attention and reflection, and heavy viewing in later life encourages brain deterioration and Alzheimer’s disease” (Foley, 143). 

Moreover, if those who study expertise are right, we may even lose the very thing that is touted as the great win of our current age – the explosion in information and knowledge. Specialists who study what makes an expert – the factors that go into the making of an outstanding concert pianist, a surgeon, or a code-breaker – have arrived at a magic number: 10 000 hours. It takes roughly 10 000 hours of concerted, sustained practice at that one thing for a person to attain the level of proficiency where we say that they have reached exceptional achievement. It turns out that this is very difficult to do once the responsibilities of adulthood are on our shoulders – although it is clear that in some domains we see late-flowering careers. Nonetheless, this means that for many areas of expertise, the 10 000 hours is best reached in the years up to the early twenties. Some even say that a person has to have clocked this number by the time they are twenty-one. This is because it translates to hours of exposure and practice each day for roughly ten years.

Now, in an era of multi-tasking and glib information, how good is our culture in providing the kind of environment and atmosphere where a young person feels comfortable putting hours each day into practising their skills and understanding in one domain? The pressures to do lots of things, to be ‘available’, and the temptation to fritter away our time, energy and attention on activities such as shopping, social networking, and consuming entertainment, are hallmarks of our time. And they are destroyers of the kinds of commitment, concentration and renunciation that are required to become an expert. No matter what we are doing, there is always the anxiety that we ‘should’ be doing something else. In order to excel at one thing, for the vast majority of us, this means saying ‘no’ to a host of other things – to forgo opportunities elsewhere. Accepting that there are limits to our time and that we cannot do everything we want – an admission, in fact, to lack – is an idea largely submerged by the ideology of our age where buzzwords like “dreams” and “opportunity” emphasise the attraction of the possible at the expense of a realistic assessment of priorities, and the time probably required to achieve them. Some young people do still put in the 10 000 hours, but to do so, it seems, requires a conscious resistance to the prevailing ‘tone’ of contemporary life.

Michael Foley, in his offering The Age of Absurdity, offers us an analysis of this phenomenon, as well as a host of other interconnected traits of our age. The anxious anticipation of what may come, at the expense of mindfully committing to what is before us, our inability to concentrate, and a generalised sense of cognitive hyper-stimulation he calls our “reverence for potential”. Foley argues that it is part of a constellation of symptoms that inhibit our real flourishing, “Whatever is actually happening today is already so yesterday, and the only true excitement is the Next Big Thing – the next lover, job, project, holiday, destination or meal. … This, in turn, rules out the satisfactions of confronting and surmounting problems and destroys the crucial ability to make use of tribulations, to turn to advantage whatever happens” (35). Instead of digging in and seeing what we can make of it, we dance on to the next distraction, searching for that over the rainbow place where we can have it all, all at once.

Michael Foley’s offering is one of a growing sub-genre of what might be called ‘popular philosophy resistance literature’ where the maladies of the age are addressed through a philosophical lens. Contemporary problems such as inattention, the shunning of effort or difficulty, the obsession with youth and fame and luxury, and the rejection of complexity are each addressed.  A broad ‘remedy’ is offered in a mixture of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Zen Buddhism, and Existentialism. If we are unable to commit to the attention and hard work needed to attain a skill or even love a spouse, Foley suggests, in curmudgeonly humour, that we need to apply ourselves a little better and remember to value the process of slowly acquiring a character worth having, rather than looking for quick solutions. In a culture of must-haves and short-cuts it is a timely reminder.

Foley’s book is a variation on a theme in contemporary publishing – since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Fukuyama’s declaration that we were at the ‘end of history’ and that consumer capitalism had unquestionably triumphed, there has been growing unease with the dominant, free-market culture of the West. In the political and economic sphere, we now have one model, and countries are judged as more or less successful versions of the same thing. We have more technology, more communication, more affordable items that were once considered prohibitively expensive luxuries, greater life expectancy and greater access to information than ever before. Yet – we have high rates of anxiety, depression, family dysfunction, and loneliness. We have greater access to higher education, yet each succeeding generation seems less capable of independent thought, principled decision-making and quiet reflection than the one before it. We have cleaner, safer workplaces – yet we spend more and more hours in them, we are more likely to be stressed or burned-out, and our houses are less and less affordable in relation to earnings. In many areas crime rates have gone down, but we are more afraid than ever of letting our children play unsupervised. Fresh fruit and vegetables are now available year-round, yet the rates of childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise. Divorce rates are high, but weddings are ruinously expensive.

Foley takes us on a tour of this world we live in. He peppers his text with anecdotes that point to an age that is indeed, absurd – an age where sales of oranges are plummeting because people cannot be bothered taking the time to peel them anymore, or where brain scans reveal that “high-end brands evoke the same neural response as religious images” and that “an iPod has the same effect as the Mother Teresa ”(19). Malls and advertising solicit our infantile desires while in corporate retreats we expect to “be told how to live in a set of short bullet points” (13). Foley explicitly builds on the work of psychologist Albert Ellis who identified three “musts” that he believed caused crippling personality problems in modern individuals:

“I must succeed.” – The curse of perfectionism.

“Everyone must treat me well” – The curse of neediness.

“The world must be easy.” – The curse of stupidity.

In humour typical for Foley’s book, he offers the following remedy:

“So much anguish and outrage could be prevented if towns and cities floated over their streets every day three giant balloons, showing the messages, ‘Failure Is More Common Than Success’; ‘Many Will Dislike You Whatever You Do’; and, on a balloon even larger than the other two, ‘The World Does Not Oblige’” (62).

It is not surprising that in addition to the usual raft of self-help titles, that there should be increasing numbers of volumes that ponder the apparent insanity of much contemporary life in late-capitalist societies and, rather than claiming a fail-safe route to success and happiness, are questioning the very ideology of success itself. Capitalism’s triumph has created its own shadows, and works such as Foley’s speak to the ubiquitous yet inadmissible fact of people’s unease with the way things are. Success has become an externalised idea – about the material and publicity proof that we are valid and that our existence is justified. Foley tackles this idea by taking the reader on a tour of earlier ideas of the good life from the Stoics, Epicureans and, in modern thinking, Existentialism. Using the figure of Sisyphus, Camus’ chosen tale of Existential striving, Foley urges us to return to some of these earlier truths, while also accepting the absurdity of modern life: “The struggle to learn is more valuable than the learning itself, thinking with no particular purpose is the most enjoyable form of thought, absorption in a difficult skill – the flow experience – is more rewarding than any recognition, striving to love is more satisfying than being in love. Everything must be its own reward” (208). Fame and money and glamour, in other words, are of little worth in comparison to intrinsic motivation and a life lived by its own lights.

While reading Foley’s book I was struck by two connections – one to philosopher Alain De Botton, and another to a dissenting psychoanalyst, Adam Philips.

De Botton has written persuasively and personably about the dilemmas facing the contemporary individual, lost in a sea of apparent choice, yet also insidiously coerced into making decisions that do not contribute to human flourishing. More to the point, for most of us, that apparent freedom and openness is belied by the necessity of making a living. It is this topic that he writes of with compassion in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009). De Botton explores the search for meaning in the contemporary workplace, and how this is made all the harder by the remoteness of many of our jobs from an actual discernable product or contribution. In the end, he, too, advocates a kind of stoic humility, focussing on the processes and human dignity granted us in meaningful labour:

“Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble” (326).

Of course, work that is brutally meaningless, exploitative, or destructive need not apply for this position as the redemptive ingredient in many a life.

Closer to the core contentions of Foley’s work are some of the observations Adam Philips makes in his essays. I remember reading an interview with Adam Philips in which he said that we live in a “fame and money cult.” He argued that whereas those in the Middle Ages would cite religious salvation as their dearest wish, we now yearn for riches and celebrity as the ultimate affirmation of our existence. In an intriguing essay “On Success” Philips asks his audience of college counsellors to question the very model of ‘success’ they are implicitly charged with helping their patients pursue. Could the failing student be actually resisting the models of success on offer – -can failure be a protest? He argues that one of the tasks of psychoanalysis is to help each patient expand their “repertoire of ways of being” so that they are not captured by a single discourse. In short, like Foley, Philips seems to be arguing for each individual to refine their notions of success into something more authentic than what is offered in current, ‘off-the-rack’ models:

“It is particularly difficult to entertain alternatives in a culture so bewitched both by the idea of success and by such a limited definition of what it entails. Because the idea of the enviable life has now replaced the idea of the good life … there may also be people around … for whom success is itself a distraction, but for whom there is no language available to describe a good life free of success. We police ourselves with purposes. Our ambitions – our ideals and success stories that lure us into the future — can too easily become ways of not living in the present, or of not being present at the event, a blackmail of distraction; ways, that is, of disowning, or demeaning, the actual disorder of experience. Believing in the future can be a great deadener. Perhaps we have been too successful at success and failure, and should now start doing something else” (Philips, On Flirtation, 58).

Foley examines the dominant criteria of success in exhaustive detail, presenting the reader with the contemporary obsessions with riches, fame, entitlement, youth, conspicuous consumption, and instant fulfilment. His argument is analogous to that presented by De Botton and Philips – that something has gone amiss in the ways we think about being ‘saved’. In all of the main domains of life – love, work, leisure, education – Foley sees the law of absurdity at work, where clearly ridiculous propositions are taken as gospel truth. Spending is advertised as saving; debt is presented as opportunity; and the instant ‘stars’ or reality TV are talked about as talent. The principles of duty, moderation, temperance, effort, thrift, loyalty and persistence, have, in his analysis been replaced by indulgence, excess, extremism, convenience, credit and instant gratification. However, his objections are not moral, or not precisely moral, but focussed on the absurdity of expecting the wages of persistence and perseverance from short-cuts and placebos. He presents to us an entire culture bent on aggravating desire. We are prompted to waste our energies on things and activities that do not challenge or nourish.

What is missing from these philosophical examinations of postmodern malaise is an acknowledgement of the economic and political realities that shape these dominant ideologies. Perhaps it is not within the scope of a philosopher’s book to discuss these, but it does seem somewhat obvious that a great deal of our current distraction and anxiety is about money, or rather, about a particular way of thinking about money and what it can buy.

Just recently I have been pondering an advertisement that beams its pixelated light across a busy intersection on my way to and from work. In its blockheaded way it encapsulates an entire ideology of capitalism. With a canny slogan and images of an idealised family at various holiday destinations, it suggests that if one wants to have a life, one must own a recently manufactured four-wheel drive. Of course, one lives with or without said SUV. In fact, you are likely to see more of your family, be less stressed, and be creating less environmental havoc if you refrain from buying this car. Life and happiness are not located in consumer goods, or, in fact, any object at all, since they made in the living. It is this swindle that I would like to see the philosophers tackle more directly.

Works cited:

De Botton, Alain (2009). The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Foley, Michael (2010). The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy. London: Simon and Schuster.

Philips, Adam. (1994) “On Success” in On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. London: Faber.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. (2007) New York: Harper Perennial.

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7 thoughts on “On reading: The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy. Michael Foley. London: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

  1. I loved to read this text. I am still reading The Age of Absurdity (enjoying it a lot) and did not know about Adam Philips’s point of view. Thanks for sharing your ideas in such a deep and thoughtful way.
    Greetings from Brazil!

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