How To Be Idle
By Tom Hodgkinson
HarperCollins, 282 pp., $18.95
In this thing called living, you've got a couple of long-range options. You can subscribe to the work ethic, knock yourself out, and go for the gold. For inspiration, let killjoys John Wesley, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Margaret Thatcher be your guides.
Follow, however, in the footsteps of Lao Tzu, Blaise Pascal, Samuel Johnson, Robert Louis Stevenson, "Bartleby" (the scrivener), Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, and God, and you've got another thing coming: idlers all who knew when to buckle down and when to call it a day. God's in that group? Yes. After six days creating everything under, and including, the sun, even he gave it a rest -- for eternity. A rest but doing what? God (you too) have these options:
Sleeping, reading, daydreaming, eating, smoking, staring, napping, fishing, walking, drinking, stargazing, partying, lovemaking, whatever God or you wills and in no particular order. But if it's order you need in order to get nothing done, see Tom Hodgkinson's 24-hour timetable in his how-to, How To Be Idle.
Hodgkinson's got the ways of the idler down to a science, an art as well -- based here on the lives of the great men of science and art. (What, not one woman?) He's also unapologetically opinionated and in 1993 found a home for those opinions in an English magazine called The Idler. True to form, it's a quarterly. God forbid it be a monthly, because the editor/author needs his free time, the better to waste his time mucking about. The better to not work the livelong day and/or night. The better to rail against competition, Methodism, capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, consumerism, corporate arse-licking, light bulbs, and coffee.
Light bulbs? To quote Hodgkinson: "It was Edison's anti-sleep philosophy that led him to invent that great enemy of idleness: the light bulb." (And so doing, to usher in the era of round-the-clock, back-breaking, soul-killing labor.)
Coffee? Again to quote Hodgkinson: "Coffee is for winners, go-getters, tea-ignorers, lunch-cancellers, early-risers, guilt-ridden strivers, money obsessives and status-driven spiritually empty lunatics. It is an enervating force. We should resist it and embrace tea, the ancient drink of poets, philosophers and meditators."
Tea, then, it is, at "elevenses" until Hodginkson's calling by noon for a pint and recalling Americans in the '50s "half cut" by 3 on a third martini. By which time, the author's ready to rail against self-hating gym-freaks and loudmouth cell-phoners. Worse, he's ready to argue in favor of the French, who have this saying: "The less you work, the more you produce."
Hodgkinson's also ready to recommend Spanish siestas and the Italian "Slow Food" movement. He's happy to borrow from Nietzsche, who traced the root word of "guilt" (slackers' guilt over not contributing to the national good) to guilder (gold). And he's man enough to quote James I on that pet project of the nonproductive, smoking: "A custom lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse."
Fellow smokers, welcome to the pit. Hodgkinson smokes too. Rolls his own. Admits that cigarettes are "shocking, stinky, useless, harmful to the health" and one component to that prized pastime, contemplation.
But you say you gave up smoking the minute you had kids. You work hard for a halfway decent living. You put in your annual 50 weeks. You deserve your two weeks, what's called a vacation. Take it. Only, Hodgkinson writes, avoid by all means the increasingly popular and idiotic idea known as the "active holiday, where various amusements such as skydiving, bungee jumping and banana-boating are ... all designed to stop you thinking about how much you want to blow your boss's brains out."
Cheaper, healthier too, the author believes, for you to breathe deep, journey out, preferably on foot, quietlike: Take a hike. You may just catch yourself thinking not about a boss and a brain but about that life of yours, which is bound to end in "total idleness, which is death." •