How to Do Nothing. March 12, 2020

One problem I sometimes have when reading nonfiction books is that they start with a bang and then get very tedious. This often happens with argumentative books: the first chapter makes a case for a particular philosophy or idea, and justifies it with very compelling arguments. The following chapters then present several examples of how the idea must apply in practice, ostensibly to give the reader more insight, but all I perceive is the author trying to make the case even more persuasive, even though I was probably already convinced by chapter 1.

Cal Newport (who wrote a bunch of “How to” books) is my quintessential example for this. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to finish a book by him.

This whole introduction is just so I can say that How to Do Nothing is nothing like that. In fact it’s not a “How to” book at all. Jenny Odell looks at the so-called “attention economy” at a level a lot deeper than the usual social media detox guides out there. This is valuable because there’s nothing uniquely bad about Facebook, it’s just very good at exploiting the way humans behave and interact with each other, and quitting Facebook won’t bring you much if you don’t try to understand how that happens.

The book argues for the necessity of doing nothing, not by quitting everything and becoming a hermit, but by facing this world that wants you to react at everything at all times and reclaiming some time for yourself. And although I was convinced of this even before reading the first chapter (titled “The Case for Nothing”), I found that each subsequent section would bring more insight to the idea, by revealing another facet of it.

“Reclaiming time for yourself” is a bit of a dangerous idea, because we’ve been conditioned to interpret that as “spending time better”. There’s a whole industry of productivity self-help books out there based on that interpretation. But ultimately it can only really “reclaim time” in a very narrow sense. Odell rejects this interpretation, inviting us to look into how we want to live our lives, instead of becoming relentless optimizers.

Although it’s an argumentative book, and clearly written by an academic (there’s a lot of academic and literary quotes), it’s also very anecdotal. It’s full of stories by Odell, relating her regular spots in Oakland, where she lives, other places she’s visited and events she was part of. The stories point to how she got to “Nothing”, and also reflect the notion that the journey is necessarily very personal. I just wish there were some pictures; I read the Kindle edition, which didn’t have any.