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Book Review: Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz

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I went to the bookstore the other day, seeking out Marcus Aurelius’s classic treatise on stoic self-reflection, Meditations. As I am often wont to do, I found several other interesting reads and sat down to flip through them. Then I caught out of the corner of my eye the cover of a book titled, quite simply, Doing Nothing. I could over-dramatize my discovery of this book as providential — a beacon of slacker hope beckoning the ship adrift that is my mind towards, well, further drifting — but I am way too lazy to do that. Suffice it to say, I just stumbled onto it.

Upon closer inspection I discovered the full title to be Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz. I am not one so self-aggrandized as to claim a book was written for me, but by gosh, this book was written for and about people like me. I can’t really say what sort of demographic Mr. Lutz had in mind when he wrote, but I will just assume for now it is the very same sort of folk who like to engage in the activity the title suggests. Regardless, Doing Nothing was quickly added to my ever-expanding list of books I want and, since I have no patience whatsoever, the book was just as quickly re-categorized into books I own.

I read the first chapter as soon as I got home, which is a sizable number of pages and quite an accomplishment for someone who considers himself a slacker. I was immediately struck by Lutz’s claim that sometimes people who are traditionally considered as enjoying leisure pursue said leisure — or activities considered leisurely — in an almost workmanlike manner, so that it thusly becomes work. Lutz uses several examples of writers, artists, poets, and the like who espouse the slacker lifestyle, but hardly adhere to it as they churn out several pieces of work at a sometimes staggering rate.

Lutz also observes the opposite trend in his exploration of some classic examples of hard-workers who worked only slightly as hard as they claimed. Benjamin Franklin is the earliest, most accessible, and most symbolic example. Though Franklin often meditated on the merits of hard work, there is ample evidence to indicate that he often led his life to the contrary.

I’m not criticizing Ben Franklin for being a closet slacker, but it’s interesting what this book has to say about the opposing views of what is and is not considered hard work, and how those who often tout the merits of hard work fail to live up to even their own standards. This is to say nothing about the differing attitudes about what is and isn’t activity in general and the omnipresent qualitative disparity regarding work between the generations, which is illustrated in an anecdote related by Lutz in which his own son is reluctant to leave the couch in an effort to find a job.

As for myself, I grew up in a hard-working household. My dad works harder than anybody I’ve ever known and (gasp!) he actually enjoys it. We’re talking actual physical labor here, not sitting in front of a computer pretending to make television (good or otherwise) like his son does. The quality of my work experience growing up was mixed (read: it sucked). I learned the value of hard work as defined by my dad, both by working with him and for him. This provided me with motivation to never have to work hard again, which — although maybe not what my dad wanted me to learn — was a valuable lesson in itself.

A person takes from each experience what he will, regardless of the original intention. Basically, my credo became work hard at not having to work hard and this translated into going to college, getting a degree in a field I like, graduating, and getting a job doing that which I like to do – all so I never have to do that which I hate, which may or may not include manual labor, or working hard by my dad’s definition.

The weird thing is, even to this day, whenever I should venture to have the discussion of my work history with my dad, he still seems to argue alternately that I have and have never had to work hard in my life, depending on the context. He tends to be quite the contrarian in this regard. If I am arguing that I’ve never worked hard, he will list all of the tough jobs I’ve had, but if I’m saying I know what it is to work hard, he will argue that, though I have had tough jobs, they were never that tough and if they were, I didn’t work very hard at them and, in fact, spent most of the workday complaining about how hard the work was.

One thing rings true: my dad worked hard to provide and he passed his work ethic in this regard on to me. It is, after all, the most important lesson: learning how to provide, whether it’s for self or for others, no matter how hard the work. As for things I wanted, I have had to work for most of those things since I was about 14 years old, but the irony is that my parents have usually ended up footing the bill for much of said wanted things in the end. I think for them it was the satisfaction of knowing that if it was truly necessary, I could at some point pay for all of it myself – or, at least I have the capacity to do so because of the hard-work ethic they had worked so hard to instill in me.

Doing Nothing also touches on the (apparently archaic) concept of otium. By Lutz’s definition, this is using leisure as an opportunity to further pursue the arts, philosophy, and overall betterment of the self. I say that otium is apparently archaic because a Google search of the term curiously turns up next to nothing. Clearly the term is not on the tips of many tongues these days.

Within otium, though, is how I justify what I call my own personal “constant pursuit of leisure.” True, I often say that I like to do as little as possible, but it doesn’t mean I’m lying in bed all day staring at the ceiling (though I do that from time to time). I spend most of my time doing nothing, not in front of the television, but reading, writing, or playing music – or playing video games. Okay, so a guy’s got to have some vices, but it is in this context that doing nothing is actually doing something; that is, when the pursuit of leisure is actually the antithesis of doing actual work, but not so of being productive, in a sense.

Productivity is a tricky word. Is productivity actually having a physical end product that is corporeal and tangible? Or can it also be a work-in-progress, an abstract notion of building towards an admittedly vague — but no less real — goal of some sort? In my case, I pursue doing nothing in an effort to broaden my mind, to expand knowledge on subjects where little or no knowledge previously existed, or to be a jack of all intellectual trades and a master of none. I can’t say there is an ultimate goal, because if there is an ultimate goal, then there is also reason to eventually stop my pursuit of otium/doing nothing, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

The pursuit of otium may not be appealing to all. Some people may not consider the leisure of art or the art of leisure all that rewarding. Many are not happy unless they are actually moving and exerting some sort of physical effort, but is this movement any less a pursuit of leisure than non-movement?

Doing Nothing contends that it is a mistake to confuse leisure with inactivity or inertia. It is also a mistake to become too leisurely, lest we lose all motivation whatsoever. I admittedly fall victim to waxing and waning levels of motivation, as do most people, but that is called laziness, which again should not be confused with leisure or doing nothing in the Lutz sense. After all, doing nothing is usually doing something, even though the something may be of little consequence to others, even ourselves.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!