Memorial Day marks the official start of summer, that blissful cluster of months when activity slows down and we can loll in the hazy sunshine. Or that’s the fantasy, anyway. In reality, summer isn’t all that different from the rest of the year for most Americans: We trundle off to the office, darting into the sun at lunchtime if we’re lucky, and wringing as much pleasure as possible from weekends and short vacations. Even then, we rarely let ourselves be totally lax; cell phones and laptops keep us tethered to the working world.
Tom Hodgkinson thinks he can help. Founder of a little British magazine called The Idler, he places himself in a long line of philosophers and poets who have celebrated the pleasures of slackness. His new book
How to Be Idle is a whimsical self-help manual welded onto a literary apologia for indolence, which—as Robert Louis Stevenson declared—”does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class.” To substantiate this, Hodgkinson assembles a pantheon of visionary loafers such as Descartes (he conjured up Cartesian duality while lazing around) and John Lennon (all that late-period “watching the wheels go round and round” stuff), as well as fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes (meandering strolls helped him solve his cases) and Melville’s Bartleby, a creation “almost Gandhi-like in his protest against work.”
The 24 slender chapters take on aspects of life that could be improved by a floppier attitude. Hodgkinson mounts a very funny assault on early rising (“What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle—clocks and alarms—into one unit?”) and pens a passionate ode to aimless conversation. Best of all is the chapter on illness and malingering, which reminds me of the bedridden languor of childhood sick days spent flipping through comics or nodding out on novels. As Hodgkinson points out, the romantic notion of the rest cure is so far gone now that employees worry about taking a single day off work, instead gulping flu medicine to keep their exhausted bodies in motion.
Flouting its own laid-back ethos, How to Be Idle works up a sweat critiquing capitalism. Hodgkinson briskly analyzes the setbacks to laziness over the past three centuries, with particular attention to the industrial revolution. That’s when the notion of the “job” entered the picture, along with the unprecedented alienation of clocking in, being paid by the hour, and depending on a single employer for your wage. Early industrial barons forced peons to work from dawn to dark, keeping them in line with fear of starvation and God’s wrath. Thomas Carlyle and John D. Rockefeller paid lip service to the dignity of labor, but as British journalist Jeffrey Bernard quipped, “If there was something romantic about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging his own fucking garden, wouldn’t he?” Hodgkinson hasn’t invested a huge amount of original thought into this potted history, but he does weave a lot of heavy material (the Luddites, labor strikes, the temperance movement) into an entertaining and appropriately leisurely narrative.
What holds the book together is the blokey charm of Hodgkinson’s voice—”bloke” being the Brit equivalent of the regular guy who likes beer and football. This Hornby-esque slant leads Hodgkinson to exalt his favorite pastimes—drinking and smoking—rather than more tranquil pursuits like yoga or cooking. Women are completely invisible here, except for an occasional Barbara Ehrenreich quote about working-class Americans and Hodgkinson’s brief fantasia about guilt-free sex with French prostitutes. Maybe that’s because men have a natural talent for goofing off, whereas women have historically been left to hold together the family when men wander off. The statistics about who does housework (overwhelmingly women, even in this two-income era) tell their own story.
Like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, How to Be Idle is not designed to be a serious guidebook, but the book’s format encourages Hodgkinson’s flippant prescriptions. “Be fearless, quit your job! You have nothing to lose but your anxieties, debts and misery!” he exhorts, sounding like a page from a lost issue of McSweeney’s (a magazine that came into being several years after The Idler). Even as he complains about experts and busybodies curbing us with rules and regulations, Hodgkinson issues his own decrees on sex (it should be languid and free of performance anxiety) and home decorating (retro furniture picked up at flea markets is the way to go). But it’s hard to stay annoyed at a guy whose ideal for living is Crass, the anarchist band who founded a hippie-ish commune in the English countryside. The trouble with anarchism, communal living, and going back to nature, though, is that they’re hard work. More rewarding than toiling for shareholders, sure, but growing your own food involves blisters and backache. Until the arrival of robot servants in every home, work won’t be wished away, and if you’re not doing it, then someone else is doing it for you.