Do you have an active intellectual life? That is a question you may feel uncomfortable answering these days given that the very phrase “intellectual life” can strike some people as pretentious or self-indulgent, even irresponsible in a time of pandemic disease. But what better time could there be for an examination of the subject of the inner life? And what is “the intellectual life,” anyway?
In her 2020 book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life
(Princeton University Press, 2020), Zena Hitz explores the interior world and shows that intellectual endeavor is not simply a matter of reading by oneself but can encompass everything from a lifelong fascination with falcons to strategies for retaining one’s sanity and humanity in a gulag or producing ground-breaking political and sociological writings in a prison cell in Mussolini’s Italy.
In the course of her book, Hitz deploys real-world examples from young Einstein in his day job in a Swiss patent office to Malcolm X’s encounter with the fellow prison inmate who first urged him to embark on a life-changing course of reading to Dorothy Day’s encounters with books throughout her life and their influence on her youthful secular radicalism to her conversion to Catholicism and continued activism. We also encounter St. Augustine and take a deep dive into Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and travel with a Preston Sturges hero in a screwball comedy/social commentary film.
Hitz’s reader-friendly examination of the intellectual life is ideal reading for the millions of us confined to our homes due to the coronavirus and who now have time to read and think seriously about matters of mortality and the meaning of life, which are suddenly front and center in our daily lives.
And at a time of pandemic-related economic peril for liberal arts colleges and programs, Hitz’s take on what ailed them even before our current crisis and her prescription for a way forward for those that survive the next several years are must reading for not only academics but all citizens who care about how civilization itself carries on.
Give a listen.