idle time

“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell was probably one of the most annoying books I read in 2022.

I wasn’t alone - a quick perusal of some of the more popular Goodreads reviews reveals some choice frustrations:

Odell has some interesting points but good lord does it seem like she would be exhausting to talk to at a party

Woman discovers trees and then shares the experience in a language that the rest of us use to write grant proposals.

Collective self-help for middle-class leftist intelligentsia. Has the feeling of taking a leisurely stroll with your loony hippie friend who is at once an overeducated ecosocialist and a crackpot Zen mind-hacker. You have no idea why she loves birdwatching so much (to her it’s a proto-spiritual experience, to you it seems superficially like playing Pokémon Go) nor can you figure out how she affords to live on the Oakland-Piedmont border without a full-time job.

It’s strange, because at the core the message of the book is something I actually resonate with fairly deeply. I feel exhausted by the constant pressure to be doing something else, something that might make me fitter, happier, more productive and it seems easy to point the finger at “the attention economy” and the constant comparison to more-successful others that social media usage can engender.

For me one of the more frustrating features isn’t so much the obscure writing style or assumed privilege of her audience, but a lack of focus on actually understanding why it’s hard to do nothing now. A vague hand wave toward “capitalism” and “the attention economy” is as far as Odell gets. It’s less a book about how to do nothing but one about the myriad spiritual and moral benefits of doing nothing, and why doing nothing is good from different philosophical perspectives. It’s simultaneously didactic and yet doesn’t teach the reader much that is actually useful.

Maybe the meta point is that if you want it to be useful you’re still in the clutches of trying to “do something” rather than “do nothing,” but it seriously comes off as lecturey at best and holier-than-thou at worst. The enlightened sermonize in the California sun while the damned scurry in the urban sewer.


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