Glenn Russell's Reviews > Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz
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One of the great joys in life - the simple pleasure of reading and reflecting and learning for its own sake.

But how much time and space does our modern world provide women and men to engage in such practice?

More dramatically, what happens when many within a society view careful thinking and contemplation, imagination and poetic flights of fancy as useless, freakish or even threatening?

These are among the questions Zena Hitz considers in her recently published book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.

What a timely book on a critically important topic: thinking, specifically cultivating the philosophic side of our mind as an end in itself, thus empowering us to lead a deeper, richer life for ourselves, our loved ones, our community and the world.

Good news: Lost in Thought is NOT an abstract treatise; quite the contrary, Zena Hitz repeatedly cites specific individuals throughout history, from St. John of the Cross to Steve Martin, from Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante to Malcolm X, to underscore how the process of philosophic inquiry is foundational and vital in all aspects of our lives, in all our endeavors.

The author begins with her own background: she had the good fortune to be raised by parents, not themselves academics, who pursued the study of philosophy in its various forms. Along with her older brother, her parents engendered a love of books and encouraged the reading of books. Thus, starting from an early age, learning became a joy.

Joy in learning continued throughout her undergraduate years at a liberal arts college with a focus on small group interaction. Zena Hitz’s abiding experience of intellectual honesty and spontaneity propelled her to continue her studies in graduate school.

However, as she quickly grasped, graduate school can have its nasty, competitive side: graduate students vie for approval and status, using learning and academic accomplishment as a way to humiliate and put down others within their field, frequently resorting to methods most cruel. The life of the mind begins to take on the cast of a bloodsport.

And so it continued when Zena became a college instructor - interlaced with learning in the classroom, such pettiness and superficiality: "I remember going ot one academic dinner party among many and suddenly feeling queasy as we suggested that the central values in our lives were fine wines and trips to Europe."

As Zena moved through her thirties, she felt the need to deepen her life by religion and neighborhood participation which lead her at age thirty-eight to leave academia and become a lay member of Madonna House, a Catholic religious community in Canada.

After three years, Zena returned to college life, having the good fortune to be offered a position teaching in the Great Books curriculum at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Zena then discusses the love of learning in more depth, its influence on our ultimate goals and the ways it colors our leisure time. As she makes abundantly clear, the thinking and learning she's alluding to here goes deeper than a graduate student's use of ideas to score points or an academic's publishing a paper to secure tenure. By way of example, here are direct quotes from the text along with my modest comments:

“We see the love of learning in children collecting and cataloging dead bugs, or in bookworms as they huddle in closets and corners, hiding from their public lives as shop owners, politicians, or housewives.” The intellectual life is an extension of a child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder at the world around us. And since many Goodreads members are bookworms, I especially enjoyed including this quote. And one thing is clear: everyone on this internet site reading books, writing about books, commenting on book reviews are doing so for the sheer love and joy of it – in no way is money part of the equation. There’s a certain rightness and integrity when ideas are shared and exchanged in such an environment.

“For Aristotle, only contemplation – the activity of seeing and understanding and savoring the world as it is – could be the ultimately satisfying use of leisure.” On the topic of leisure, I hear echoes of The Culture Industry by Theodor W. Adorno: leisure has become toxic, leisure time as prime time for those in power to manipulate, to create artificial needs and push false values – today in 2020, the opium of the people takes many forms: TV stupor, cell phone addiction, liquor and tobacco, prescription drugs and recreational drugs, pop music and muzak, all to keep the population numb, spiritually and intellectually shallow. No complaining, thinking or questioning, thank you. Simply keep showing up at your crap job with little or no personal fulfillment beyond receiving a paycheck – after all, you can get your highs and kicks and numb yourself up after hours.

“Plato and Aristotle and many after them sought something they called the highest good – the best human activity, pursued for its own sake – for which we have a natural affinity above all others.” “Natural affinity” is the key phrase here: asking questions is at the very heart of what it means to be human. What’s happening when many adults in our modern society judge asking questions of a philosophic nature as a kind of abnormality or perversion? This section of Zena's book reminded me of prominent social psychologist Erich Fromm and his Escape From Freedom and The Sane Society.

“The freedom of a leisurely activity is the freedom from results or outcomes beyond it; not the freedom of rest or recreation. . . . The difference between leisure and recreation will be subtle, but clear, in how we choose these different kinds of ends. Any minimally happy life much include recreation, but what really matters is far more demanding.” We all need recreation now and again, things like card playing, watching sports or a day at the beach. But surely there must be times when we devote our energies to matters of the head and heart. What would you want to do, to think, to feel, if this were the last day of your life?

“The idea that real and serious learning is something practiced only by a small elite is stubborn and hard to displace. But it is false.” Back in the 1940s, Mortimer Adler had a vision for his Great Books Discussion Groups: adult members of the community – carpenters, house painters, accountants, sales clerks, nurses – would meet to discuss classical works such as Plato’s Republic, Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, and the Declaration of Independence. Fortunately, the Great Books program is still alive; unfortunately, only a minute sliver of the US population has attended over the years or would ever wish to attend.

Perhaps our current COVID-19 crisis will serve as a time for us to rethink our values, for ourselves, for our institutions of higher learning, for our entire society. I’ll let Zena Hitz have the final word here: “The love of learning has emerged as something profoundly serious, something that can change a life, a source of our highest aspirations – to know, to love, to flourish in our full humanity.”


Zena Hitz, American scholar, philosopher, teacher
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
July 14, 2020 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Greta (new)

Greta A wonderful introduction into the book and the author! I love learning as well and definitely see it’s importance, particularly since I don’t have such a supportive background. Thank you for the thoughtful review 😊


message 2: by Glenn (last edited Jul 14, 2020 03:25AM) (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Greta wrote: "A wonderful introduction into the book and the author! I love learning as well and definitely see it’s importance, particularly since I don’t have such a supportive background. Thank you for the th..."

My pleasure, Greta. Like yourself, many here on Goodreads, including myself, look to books for support - along with sharing with other Goodreads members on this site. That's why I made a point of referencing Goodreads in my review.

Of course, being a prof overseeing classes of students studying Great Books at a small liberal arts college is wonderful (lucky Zena!) but few men and women are so fortunate.


message 3: by Andriani (new) - added it

Andriani I’m one of those shop owner bookworms hiding in corners, reading during business hours and feeling actual relieved that business is so slow lately (due to lockdowns) so that I can read my books in peace. Not a very good attitude for a business person, but there it is 😅

Adding this one to my growing TBR, all because of your great review 👌🏼


message 4: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Andriani wrote: "I’m one of those shop owner bookworms hiding in corners, reading during business hours and feeling actual relieved that business is so slow lately (due to lockdowns) so that I can read my books in ..."

Thanks, Andriani! So glad I did my job as reviewer. Enjoy Zena's book - it's only 200 pages and makes a fairly quick read.


message 5: by Mohamed (new)

Mohamed Thanks. Your fantastic review made me curious to read this book


message 6: by Glenn (last edited Jul 14, 2020 02:28PM) (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Mohamed wrote: "Thanks. Your fantastic review made me curious to read this book"

Thanks for letting me know I did my job as reviewer, Mohamed. If you get to this book, hope you enjoy.


message 7: by Kevin (new) - added it

Kevin Lopez Nice reference to Erich Fromm! He’s someone I keep hearing great things about and have been been meaning to read for awhile now. Would you recommend the works of his you mentioned here as a good jumping off point for Hitz’s book?


message 8: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Kevin wrote: "Nice reference to Erich Fromm! He’s someone I keep hearing great things about and have been been meaning to read for awhile now. Would you recommend the works of his you mentioned here as a good ju..."

Thanks, Kevin. The best place to start with Erich Fromm is The Art of Being. Then, The Art of Loving. Both works are much shorter than the two I mentioned.


message 9: by David (new)

David Brilliant and much needed! Cheers, Glenn.


message 10: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell David wrote: "Brilliant and much needed! Cheers, Glenn."

Thanks, David. Yes, it would be a wonderful thing if more people took time and space to read and reflect.


message 11: by Mir (new)

Mir Andriani wrote: "I’m one of those shop owner bookworms hiding in corners, reading during business hours and feeling actual relieved that business is so slow lately (due to lockdowns) so that I can read my books in ..."

It sounds lovely, at least until the rent is due. I'm a freelance editor and generally enjoy the work, although it has been nice lately to have more time for reading of my choice. (Again, until I look at my bills...)


message 12: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Mir wrote: "Andriani wrote: "I’m one of those shop owner bookworms hiding in corners, reading during business hours and feeling actual relieved that business is so slow lately (due to lockdowns) so that I can ..."

Ha! How true. Reading, writing, literature and the arts - always more enjoyable when we're freed up from an eviction notice.

BTW - my wife spent a career doing freelance copy editing for a large Philadelphia medical textbook publisher.


message 13: by Paul (new)

Paul Thanks for this, Glenn. Hurrah for the world of the intellect versus the dumbed down one!


message 14: by Glenn (last edited Jul 17, 2020 08:23AM) (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Paul wrote: "Thanks for this, Glenn. Hurrah for the world of the intellect versus the dumbed down one!"

My pleasure to write a review of this recently published gem. You're right, Paul - nowadays to engage with philosophy, science, literature and the arts requires a bit of dedication and effort but the rewards are so worth it.


Aravindakshan Narasimhan Wonderful review! Thanks again for introducing an interesting work. I have just started!


message 16: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Aravindakshan wrote: "Wonderful review! Thanks again for introducing an interesting work. I have just started!"

Great. Enjoy!


message 17: by Doel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Doel Frank Thank you, Mr. Russell. A very good comment.


message 18: by Glenn (last edited Aug 01, 2020 12:15AM) (new) - added it

Glenn Russell Doel wrote: "Thank you, Mr. Russell. A very good comment."

Thanks, Doel. As I noted in my review, this is a timely work, most particularly in our current global crisis.


message 19: by ऋचा (new) - added it

ऋचा Thanks for your review, Glenn, that led me to this book. I just finished reading it and found it interestingly quite close to heart. I guess, a number of readers of this book will share the author's observations/revelations/conclusions.


message 20: by Glenn (new) - added it

Glenn Russell ऋचा wrote: "Thanks for your review, Glenn, that led me to this book. I just finished reading it and found it interestingly quite close to heart. I guess, a number of readers of this book will share the author'..."

Thanks so much, ऋचा. So glad my review led you to this find book and you enjoyed. Such a timely subject.


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