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Interview with Dr. Pier Massimo Forni

Interview with Dr. Pier Massimo ForniDr. Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Italian Literature, is the co-founder of The Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of the best seller Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), the subsequent The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), and, more recently, The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction (St.Martin’s Griffin,  2011).

What do you mean when you say we should rediscover "thinking"?

By “rediscovering thinking” I mean that we should change the rituals of our lives to include among them segments of uninterrupted time to just sit down and engage in serious reflection. The computer is a shallow communicator and we are all becoming shallow thinkers.

You emphasize how we communicate because we can and not because we need. What is the worst effect of the social networks?

Allowing for exceptions, social networks are contributing to the demise of importance. We are losing the ability to distinguish between what is trivial and what truly matters. Youngsters in particular are victims of the tragic sense of equivalence that pervades the internet.

How did we loose our ability to have a quiet conversation with ourselves?

We stopped to reflect and introspect because of the overabundance of entertainment opportunities in our lives. Thinking is a time end energy consuming activity. It can prove enjoyable but after reflecting for a while we need respite. That “for a while” is key.  One of the functions of the parents and teachers of old was to keep their charges on a thinking track for a sizeable amount of time every day. I may be mistaken, but the unwillingness of today’s parents and teachers to be demanding partners in knowledge coupled with the ubiquity of digital entertainment are major causes of the crisis.

Among several indications on how to recover the power of thinking, you suggest writing a journal. Why?

Writing a journal is an invaluable strategy to capture life and transform it into matter for reflection. Every schoolboy or girl in the world should be given the task of writing a journal as part of their school duties.

Actually, we are all writing nowadays, about our daily lives, our joys, our pains, our political, religious, social opinions: we do that on Facebook. Is that not a valid "thinking"? Is that bad for a good life?

Indeed, there is an astonishing amount of writing that circulates electronically all over the world. Of course there is power in numbers. Is a lesser known blogger going to be recognized some day as the next Proust or the next Kafka? It is certainly possible. The benefit of this must be seen against the background of trivial and narcissistic writing in which millions of other bloggers and frequenters of social sites engage. The overabundance of text will drain value and importance from all texts, good and bad, inspired and irrelevant. An unfortunate and insidious result of the digital revolution is the perception that there are no things more important than others. Equivalence and sameness will prevail. We’d better get used to a world where, as Philip Roth said, everything goes and nothing matters.  

In the age of distraction, is there still room for literature and philosophy and all those disciplines requiring  a slow-pace time?

I cannot believe that in the future there will be people who will read the Bible, The Nicomachean Ethics, The Divine Comedy, Ulysses, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Castle, Remembrance of Things Past, or even The Decameron. They are too long and they are written in an English (original or translation) that will be difficult to understand by readers who went through school systems unable to extract them from their shrouds of ignorance. These works will be available in versions for the sophisticated reader of not more than thirty pages each. Most other people will consult a Wikipedia-like tool where they will find paragraph-length synopses of the contents.

Which books would you suggest to start a process of re-finding the art of thinking - that is the art of happiness?

How about those I mentioned in the previous answer?

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