The Timeless Wisdom of Kenko

A 14th-century Japanese essayist’s advice for troubled times runs the gamut from quirky to prescient

Kenko had little trouble living with the idea that things were getting worse. "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty," he wrote. (Kikuchi Yosai /
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Writing is—we have always thought—a solitary and even covert labor. Of course a great writer need not be a hermit. (Shakespeare was not.) I have wondered whether Montaigne or Kenko or (God help us) Dante would have been on Facebook or Twitter, gabbing and texting away in the gregarious solidarities of new social forms. Are there such things as exile or retreat or solitude in the universe of Skype, the global hive? Does the new networking improve the quality of thinking and writing? It undoubtedly changes the process—but how, and how much? We don’t know yet.

Sometimes, oddly enough, it’s easier to write in a noisy room than in silence and solitude; for a time I liked to write while riding up and down Manhattan on the Lexington Avenue IRT—the rattling of the cars and screeching of the rails improved my concentration, and I liked having company as I scribbled away. I was fascinated and strangely soothed by the protocol of the subway, which requires that the faces of all those diverse riders—Asians, Africans, Latinos, Europeans—should, for the duration of the ride, be impassive and unreadable: no eye contact, perfect masks.

Lance Morrow’s books include the essay collection Second Drafts of History.


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