Donald Knuth needs no introduction to computer geeks. He is a world-renowned computer scientist, Stanford’s legendary laureate of algorithm analysis, and author of the seminal, multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming . His books are dedicated not to the usual suspects—the wife, the soul mate, the amanuensis beyond price—but to a computer: the Type 650 “in remembrance of many pleasant evenings.”
On January 1, 1990, Knuth became a happy man. He gave up email. Having used it already for about 15 years, he decided that was enough for one lifetime. He broadcast the snail mail address of his office at Stanford together with a sly hint that most incoming stuffs were likely to end in the wastebasket. Never mind sending him questions. The only mail that interested him was the chastening kind from other adepts who might point out—politely, no doubt— the errors he had made in his many books. Mistakes were very likely present but . . . precisely where? He told the world:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.
Why am I posting this? Hard to explain. Don Knuth, artist of algorithms, had turned his back on digital messaging before email became the next new thing to the general public. Perhaps his renunciation is a signal that the cutting edge is not always where we think it is.
It was Paul Valéry, I believe, who claimed that the character of an artist is revealed “by the nature of his refusals.” The same could be said of the saints. For the rest of us, we look to those entrusted to guide us toward sanctity to make the right refusals themselves. A pupil is not better than his master.