This holiday season, the 2019 book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” has been making the rounds of recommended reading, sometimes as a semi-humorous gift to overachievers, workaholics and people whose active lives resemble a whirling dervish.
It does make for a great gag gift for the frenetic person. But if you do crack the book open, what you discover inside is very serious and thought-provoking.
Ironically, many of the people gifting this book probably admit they haven’t actually read it themselves. They’re too busy for that, of course. Way too busy.
“How to Do Nothing” doesn’t make a case for withdrawing from all organized activity, stopping meaningful work or becoming a hermit on a mountain top.
However, it explores in detail how social media, the demands of capitalism, as well as cultural and societal norms, relentlessly (and continually) push us to be ever more busy, ever more productive, ever more frantic, all to our individual and collective detriment.
“I began to think of this as an activist book disguised as a self-help book,” author Jenny Odell writes. “I hope that the figure of ‘doing nothing’ in opposition to a productivity obsessed environment can help restore individuals who can then help restore communities, human and beyond.”
Odell’s work is pro-human, pro-happiness and pro-personal satisfaction, all wrapped in a complicated mix of history, sociology, technical critique and philosophy.
And while her prose is plenty convincing, the end notes at the back of the book support her assertions with an impressive list of sources.
How many popular books can demonstrate how nuggets of wisdom spoken by ancient Greek philosophers remain as applicable in 2020 as they were thousands of years ago?
At one point in the chapter “The Case for Nothing,” I was reminded of summers growing up at Lake Chautauqua. I would often sit on a dock reading a classic novel my schoolteacher mother had brought home. Or I’d simply sit quietly staring at the water.
My teenage amigos would often zoom up in a boat, insisting I join them in some aquatic adventure (or mischief). After all, I wasn’t “doing anything,” they would say.
I’ve had a similar experience at Seneca Lake, sitting on the family dock at the cottage in Valois.
That same chapter — one of six in the 200-plus page book — also reminded me of a university colleague who in his one-year sabbatical read more than 50 books, pondering their contents. There was no analysis or academic treatise produced at the end of his sabbatical.
But if you want to put a “productive” measure on it, he had become a far more informed and thoughtful English professor.
Some of the strongest parts of Odell’s book take aim at the “Attention Economy” with sharp jabs at how social media companies profit from every user click, microsecond of screen time and connection to the media platform.
“The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation,” she writes. “In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.”
The shorthand version of that suggests you should turn off your cell phone, computer or other electronic device, and then actually talk to the person next to you.
Or just look off into space.
As I have been working my way through chapters like “Ecology of Strangers” and “The Impossibility of Retreat,” it occurred to me that I should reach out and chat with the author about questions I have.
But I wonder.
Do I dare contact her through social media?