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Book Review: How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself by Robert Paul Smith, Elinor Goulding Smith (Illustrator)

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“Just go outside and play! Do something. Do anything. Yes, by yourself. Get out of here; go PLAY!” Whether we are willing to admit it, this is the familiar battle cry of all besieged parents. Despite our desire to be nurturing, educational, and engaged, at some point, all of us conjure forth the memory of hours spent outside, of summer afternoons and a mother’s voice saying, “I don’t want to see you until dinner.” Did this really happen, or is it a memory passed along from our beleaguered mothers, who in their turn wished to turn off the TV, and have a moment’s peace in which to think?

Yet, beneath all of the videos, DVDs, gaming systems, and scheduled activities lies one undeniable truth: at some point in our recent past, children knew how to play. Tin House Books’ timely reissue of the classic How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, by Robert Paul Smith, brings a much needed return to the essentials of childhood. First published in 1958, at the beginning of the entertainment era, How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is the result of a grown man’s research into the era of his own childhood. Filled with detailed instructions – and illustrations – for the sort of solitary games that children once passed along to each other, this book is a delightful reprieve from the incessant beeping, flashing dependence of modern childhood.

Some of the activities in the book carry the potential for mild danger. Smith himself acknowledges the risks in the characteristically common-sense fashion of his era. “It’s my belief that things themselves are not dangerous. It’s the people who use them … I can’t give you any better argument than that to use with your parents about any of the few things in this book that are dangerous…” At the beginning of the next paragraph, he comments, “So that’s the end of the lecture, and this is how you make a needle dart.”

Personally, I’m intrigued by any book for children that comes with a liability disclaimer, as this one does on the back flyleaf. It may be perverse, but in an era where coffee cups caution us that coffee is, in fact, hot, I kind of like a book that teaches children how to play games with a scout knife. So, some parents may want to forbid their children from exploring the section on “mumbly-peg.” I, however, can’t wait to point out to my fifth-grader that the awl on her pocket knife has a use beyond punching holes in things. I was also intrigued to finally find a definition and description of mumbly-peg.

Smith’s introductory paragraph is glorious. “If things were as they should be, another kid would be telling you how to do these things, or you’d be telling another kid. But since I’m the only kid left around who knows how to do these things – I’m forty-two years old, but about these things I’m still a kid – I guess it’s up to me.” Smith lays down one rule which will confound many modern children. “The rule about this book is there’s no hollering for help. If you follow the instructions, these things will work, if you don’t, they won’t.”

News and magazine articles depict parents who accompany their children to college, smoothing out every bump along the way. What a joy to give children something they can do without “hollering for help.” The activities in this book are probably best suited for middle-schoolers, but Smith himself puts it best. “I don’t know how old you are, and I really don’t know any more how old I was when I did the different things in this book, so if you find that some of the things are too old for you – wait until you’re old enough to do them. If you find that some of the things in the book are too young for you, first figure out if they’re really too young, if nobody else knows that you’re doing them.”

From the basics of paper airplanes to the many uses of horse chestnuts and empty spools, How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is replete with the sort of fun that childhood should be, and too rarely is.

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