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Two centuries have passed since the great critic and essayist William Hazlitt wrote the essay, “On Living to One's-Self.” In it, he advocated living life “as if no one knew there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it.” It is better, he maintained, to be “a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things” than it is to be “an object of attention or curiosity.”
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The virtues of self-restraint and humility possess an attractiveness all their own. Their beauty can appear in our character as well as in the written word. “Say everything clearly and without ornament,” advises John Stuart Mill. “Only use words that convey the sense of w...
For writers then and now, we think we must compulsively manage our images and brands so that everything we produce has its greatest impact and receives its widest recognition. In truth, almost all of this is outside our control. Nobody ever really knows the future impact of his words or a...
As thoroughly modern as it may appear, the drive to make a name for ourselves — to say something original and timely yet thoughtful and profound — is not just a contemporary predicament. In 1852, English theologian John Henry Newman condemned the “viewiness” requ...
In some sense, scholarship is even more conversational than public writing. In scholarly work, an author is not just writing to an audience; he is taking into account the views of others, whom he cites either to support his case or to refute something he believes is mistaken.
Both scholars and their necessarily smaller circles of readers are liberated from the demand that everything be “relevant” in a least-common-denominator sort of way. Distance from practical and political affairs may even be the essential condition for expressing...
At its worst, scholarship can be pretentious, jargon-filled, unclear, or boring — or any combination thereof. And like public writing, it too can turn into a vehicle for self-promotion, for displaying one’s supposed brilliance and erudition. But at its best, scholarly work aspires to unde...
Except for the private diary, writing is meant to be read by someone other than the author. Letters and emails presuppose recipients; corporate memos convey information to employees; advertising copy aims to make consumers desire products. Journalists have always written explicit...
But perhaps anonymity and invisibility are too extreme, throwing out something that may be essential to effective writing. After all, in good writing, there is often an element of personality that we can come to know and love. We read certain writers because we always find them interestin...
But before we embrace such an ideal outright, it might help to consider what complete anonymity would do to writers and their writing. Imagine a world in which nothing we wrote redounded to our benefit. In such a world, we would not see our work as an extension of ourselves, another item ...
But perhaps one might escape the predicament of prideful attention-seeking by working to cultivate a certain kind of disinterest. We’ve all read writers whose work appears to stand on its own. Nothing of the writer’s personality, sex, or position is evident; everything is lucid argument. ...
Though it can be fun to act as an impresario or a firebrand — to write with confidence, erudition, and verbal swagger on the hot topic of the moment — the most meaningful writing takes place when authors do not call attention to themselves, but to truths concealed beneath the busy surface...
In today's increasingly digital world, prior generations’ discomfort with fame and publicity can seem decidedly old fashioned. Many of us now live remarkably public lives — and voluntarily so. People unabashedly profess on Facebook and Twitter how “honored” and “humbled” they are to have received...
As this shift occurs, writing becomes more sensationalist — after all, most readers are attracted to provocation and find nuance boring. Moderation takes a backseat to extremes, judiciousness to hyperbole. Writers are encouraged to cater to the demands of the moment: "Give us the...
Almost all the students now find public writing more appealing than traditional scholarly work. In some sense, this is hardly surprising: Scholarly writing is both less widely noticed and more difficult to undertake than public writing. It requires in-depth research, attribution, and enga...
Over the past 25 years or so — paralleling the rise of the internet — academics have increasingly played the role of “public intellectual,” sometimes in print, though more often online, where their musings are consumed quickly and subsequently set aside.
In truth, the matter is more complicated than Hazlitt lets on. After all, he himself did not choose to live as an unknown diarist in the contemplative mode. Instead, he pursued two fundamental but opposing goods: the first, a rejection of worldliness and ambition in pursuit of perception,...
Hazlitt's essay is a call to the contemplative life — to a deep appreciation of the world's beauty and complexity. It beckons us to forget ourselves. Yet ironically, Hazlitt wrote these lines in a public essay that millions of people would eventually read. Essays often s...
“[T]hese,” John Stuart Mill declared, “are the inevitable fruits of immense competition; of a state of society where any voice, not pitched in an exaggerated key, is lost in the hubbub.” Success “in so crowded a field, depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he s...
Why must we constantly volunteer our thoughts like an overeager kindergartner, raising his hand ever higher and waving it ever more earnestly to attract the teacher's attention?
Well, the human desire for recognition may be unavoidable. As George Santayana once observed, “[t]he high...
The appeal of public writing is easy to see. Writing for a public audience is fulfilling in the near term, since millions of people have access to what is written for general consumption. With the aid of modern technology, ideas can be disseminated quickly and widely, and reactions can be...
Today’s intellectual environment makes the slow, humble work required of true scholarship difficult. Instead of reflecting in leisure, we are constantly tempted to reply to comments, refute opponents, hurl snark, and commiserate with friends. We hope people are watching as we try to build...
Despite the appeal of the life Hazlitt commends, most of us hope to do and to say things that people might receive and benefit from — and we hope to profit from the things they say in turn. Indeed, the significance of nearly all human activity depends on its being situated within a commun...
Still, the act of writing poses a predicament for anyone who recognizes the temptations of pride and self-aggrandizement. We simultaneously desire to attract recognition and seek to avoid it. We want to engage an audience, yet we see that approbation flatters our egos and that criticism i...
Where does all of this leave scholarly writing? If writing is in part a form of communication, but scholarship is meant for an audience so narrow that it may never be read at all, why should it endure as a genre? Must all scholarly writing also turn public-facing, with investigation and d...
At the same time, a writer also wants the attention of readers. Publishing anything at all is a request for others to pay attention, and publication entails the hope that what one has written will receive due consideration. “I have something I want to say, and I want you to hear it,” writ...
Writing in 1836, John Stuart Mill lamented that “when almost every person who can spell, can and will write, what is to be done? It is difficult to know what to read, except by reading everything.” The world “gorges itself with intellectual food, and in order to swallow t...
A key peril of public writing, however, is that it tends to place the writer at the center of the work. A desire to be seen, to be thought smart or witty or erudite, can — imperceptibly, at first — begin to overtake the writing itself. Writing for the public may, and often does, evolve in...
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
“[T]hese,” John Stuart Mill declared in 1836, “are the inevitable fruits of immense competition; of a state of society where any voice, not pitched in an exaggerated key, is lost in the hubbub.” Success “in so crowded a field, depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he seems.” Who are we when we write? And, are we saying something or just screaming?
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