[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'How to Be Idle': Being and Do-Nothingness
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'How to Be Idle': Being and Do-Nothingness
New York Times Book Review, 5.6.26
[First chapter appended.]
HOW TO BE IDLE
By Tom Hodgkinson.
Illustrated. 286 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $18.95.
By JEFFREY STEINGARTEN
FOR every hour of the day and night there is a different way of being
idle, which is why Tom Hodgkinson has written his book in 24 chapters.
At 8 a.m. (''Waking Up Is Hard to Do''), true idlers turn off their
alarms, flop over in bed and go back to sleep. Hodgkinson is amazed
that we voluntarily buy alarm clocks, which serve nobody but our
employers. Nine a.m. is ''the time when someone, somewhere, decided
that work should start.'' And at 10 a.m. the idler is still sleeping
in, living out Dr. Johnson's incontestable dictum that ''the happiest
part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the
The chief problem with modern life is not work in itself. It is jobs.
In 1993 Hodgkinson founded the British magazine The Idler, on whose
Web site he succinctly sums up the horrors of having a job: ''With
a very few exceptions the world of jobs is characterized by stifling
boredom, grinding tedium, poverty, petty jealousies, sexual
harassment, loneliness, deranged co-workers, bullying bosses, seething
resentment, illness, exploitation, stress, helplessness, hellish
commutes, humiliation, depression, appalling ethics, physical fatigue
and mental exhaustion.'' Yes, that pretty much sums it up. On this we
can all agree.
And the solution? Become an idler.
These chapters brim with supporting quotations from successful
literary idlers. G. K. Chesterton, in his essay ''On Lying in Bed,''
argues that the hour at which we rise should be a matter of personal
choice. And there's Jesus himself, urging his listeners on the Mount
to ''consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not,
neither do they spin.'' Not to mention the fowls of the air who
neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Keats takes the lilies of
the field as his epigraph for ''Ode on Indolence,'' in which he yearns
for ''drowsy noons, / And evenings steep'd in honied indolence.''
What do idlers do while they idle? A provisional list can be found in
these pages. Idlers contemplate, meditate, appreciate, imagine, feel a
sense of peace and calm, follow their dreams, go fishing (Izaak Walton
is the star of the 7 p.m. chapter), smoke tobacco, stare at the
ceiling and gaze at the stars. Maybe they also read voraciously or
lose themselves in feasting, two of my favorites, but I don't recall
that Hodgkinson mentions either of these.
What do idlers not do? Jobs, of course. They may work for themselves
or engage in meditative tasks like chopping vegetables for dinner --
but they do not work at jobs. Jobs are a relatively recent invention,
a creation of the Industrial Revolution, Hodgkinson writes, relying on
E. P. Thompson's pioneering work, ''The Making of the English Working
Class'' (1963), and Bertrand Russell's essay ''In Praise of Idleness''
(1932). (If you check it out in the O.E.D., you'll find that things
are somewhat more ambiguous. Before the 1920's, the word ''job''
generally meant a small, discrete piece of work, what jazz musicians
would call a gig, never regular employment at set times and wages. But
the words ''salary'' and ''wages'' are quite a bit more ancient.) In
the old days, artisans worked for themselves, earning enough to
support their families and little more. They managed their own time,
in what Thompson describes as alternate bouts of intense labor and of
idleness. On rainy days they would work like the dickens; come a sweet
spring day, they might go fishing. Why have we have given up this
freedom? Because the ruling classes (Hodgkinson's favorite target)
have spent centuries persuading the rest of us to believe in the
dignity of work even as they undignifiedly avoid it. The words above
the gates of Auschwitz, as Hodgkinson reminds us, are ''Arbeit Macht
Frei'' -- ''Work Makes You Free.'' Freedom is Slavery. This is the
heart of Hodgkinson's (and Russell's) critique of liberal consumer
It's no surprise that the successful idlers Hodgkinson quotes are all
writers -- and writers will enjoy this book, at least the first half
of it. But when we get to the chapter entitled ''The Hangover,'' which
happens at noon, Hodgkinson suddenly lurches into the twilight zone.
With no warning, he reveals that his goal -- the ultimate purpose of
his idling -- is to attain a visionary state. That's just fine, at
least with this reader. But then he tries to persuade us that the
exaggerated sensitivity to light and sounds that hangovers inflict on
us ''may be the model for Hinduism's 'third eye' of enlightenment.''
(He's quoting from an article in The Idler by Josh Glenn.) I'll have
to ask my Hindu friends about that.
At 1 p.m., we're back on Earth, in time to lament ''the death of
lunch,'' which ''has been stolen from us by our rulers.'' Right on!
McDonald's and Pret a Manger ''fulfill the fascist definition of the
function of food, 'to give the worker's body an injection of energy.'
'' Hodgkinson praises the Slow Food movement, but feasting does not
appear to be his path to bliss. When he reminds us that London's
celebrated 18th-century coffeehouses supplied their customers with
''vast bowls of alcoholic punch,'' we understand that Hodgkinson wants
to take back lunch for the conviviality and conversation but
especially, it appears, for the punch.
Two p.m. is about being ill, which allows you to stay at home and
''pad around the house in your dressing gown like Sherlock Holmes,
Noel Coward or our friend, that hero of laziness, Oblomov.'' Doesn't
Hodgkinson realize that some of us do not need illness to justify
padding around the house? Jacques Derrida stayed in his pajamas all
day unless he had an appointment. Loosen up, Hodgkinson! Three p.m. is
the hour for napping. Many, many famous and successful people past and
present have napped. I've always kept a list. But our rulers are
trying to appropriate the afternoon snooze with the repulsive
expression ''power nap,'' turning it into just another way of
recharging our batteries before we plunge back into work.
The first drink of the day comes at 6 p.m. and ''brings us into the
present moment: we become Buddhists.'' Aren't we still Hindus? At
least Hodgkinson includes a very beautiful passage from Hemingway
about getting drunk on absinthe. At 10 p.m. we go to the pub and
recall Dr. Johnson's famous encomium upon the tavern, which I believe
is still posted on the wall at Elaine's: ''As soon as I enter the door
of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from
solicitude. . . . There is nothing which has yet been contrived by
man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or
At this point in ''How to Be Idle,'' we have turned just over half of
Hodgkinson's 286 pages and mastered most of his arguments, frequently
with great enjoyment, and although there are further insights to come
and some excellent jokes, a sense of repetition inevitably sets in --
until 3 a.m. It's time to party! ''Bring together good drugs, good
people and good music and you have a magical combination. . . . We go
beyond words.'' We also go back to the future. The author discovers
parallels between his own experiences on ecstasy and Thomas De
Quincey's description of opium-eating. It all sounds like a
conversation from more than a generation ago.
Some of us still alive today grew up in a time when psychedelic
substances were legal, when experimentation was widespread, when
people were deliberate and thoughtful about what they ingested, and
when Timothy Leary was a member of the Harvard faculty. But now we are
plunged into a dark and desperate age. Eating a chocolate eclair is
considered substance abuse. Abstinence passes for religious
experience. You won't persuade people these days to become idlers, to
throw off the shackles of wage slavery, by feeding them ecstasy. For
the next year or two, let's concentrate on eradicating employment as
we know it.
Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic at Vogue and the author of ''It
Must've Been Something I Ate.''
First chapter of 'How to Be Idle'
By TOM HODGKINSON
8 a.m. Waking Up Is Hard to Do
Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81)
I wonder if that hard-working American rationalist and agent of
industry Benjamin Franklin knew how much misery he would cause in the
world when, back in 1757, high on puritanical zeal, he popularized and
promoted the trite and patently untrue aphorism "early to bed and
early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"?
It is a sad fact that from early childhood we are tyrannized by the
moral myth that it is right, proper and good to leap out of bed the
moment we wake in order to set about some useful work as quickly and
cheerfully as possible. In my own case, it was my mother whom I
remember very clearly screaming at me to get out of bed every morning.
As I lay there in blissful comfort, eyes closed, trying to hang on to
a fading dream, doing my utmost to ignore her shouting, I would start
to calculate the shortest time it would take me to get up, have
breakfast and go to school and still arrive with seconds to spare
before assembly started. All this mental ingenuity and effort I
expended in order to enjoy a few more moments of slumber. Thus the
idler begins to learn his craft.
Parents begin the brainwashing process and then school works yet
harder to indoctrinate its charges with the necessity of early rising.
My own personal guilt about feeling actually physically incapable of
rising early in the morning continued well into my twenties. For years
I fought with the feelings of self-hatred that accompanied my morning
listlessness. I would make resolutions to rise at eight. As a student,
I developed complex alarm systems. I bought a timer plug, and set it
to turn on my coffee maker and also the record player, on which I had
placed my loudest record, It's Alive by The Ramones. 7:50 a.m. was the
allotted time. I had set the record to come on at an ear-splitting
volume. Being a live recording, the first track was prefaced by crowd
noise. The cheering and whooping would wake me, and I'd know I had
only a few seconds to leap out of bed and turn the volume down before
Dee Dee Ramone would grunt: "one-two-three-four" and my housemates and
I would be assaulted by the opening chords of "Rockaway Beach," turned
up to 11. The idea was that I would then drink the coffee and jolt my
body into wakefulness. It half worked. When I heard the crowd noise, I
would leap out of bed and totter for a moment. But what happened then,
of course, was that I would turn the volume right down, ignore the
coffee and climb back to the snuggly warm embrace of my duvet. Then
I'd slowly come to my senses at around 10:30 a.m., doze until twelve,
and finally stagger to my feet in a fit of self-loathing. I was a real
moralist back then: I even made a poster for my wall which read:
"Edification first, then have some fun." It was hip in that it was a
lyric from hardcore punk band Bad Brains, but the message, I think
you'll agree, is a dreary one. Nowadays I do it the other way around.
It wasn't until many years later that I learned that I was not alone
in my sluggishness and in experiencing the conflicting emotions of
pleasure and guilt which surrounded it. There is wealth of literature
on the subject. And it is generally written by the best, funniest,
most joy-giving writers. In 1889, the Victorian humorist Jerome K.
Jerome published an essay called "On Being Idle." Imagine how much
better I felt when I read the following passage, in which Jerome
reflects on the pleasure of snoozing:
Ah! how delicious it is to turn over and go to sleep again: "just
for five minutes." Is there any human being, I wonder, besides the
hero of a Sunday-school "tale for boys," who ever gets up
willingly? There are some men to whom getting up at the proper time
is an utter impossibility. If eight o'clock happens to be the time
that they should turn out, then they lie till halfpast. If
circumstances change and half-past eight becomes early enough for
them, then it is nine before they can rise. They are like the
statesman of whom it was said that he was always punctually half an
hour late. They try all manner of schemes. They buy alarm clocks
(artful contrivances that go off at the wrong time and alarm the
wrong people) ...
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