This book sat on my bedside table for six months. I looked at it every day, tucked it into my work bag on multiple occasions, and brought it with me on several trips but I was unable to open the cover. I was paralyzed by the guilt of being wrapped into the attention economy, and I did not feel like I was ready or able to give my meager time to “nothing” quite yet. I was wrong. I wish I had cracked it open the second that I picked it up in the bookstore (the third store that I went to that day to find it, and I STILL let it sit around for months!).
I was not aiming for a “new year’s resolution”, but I finally started to read in earnest on New Year’s Day. Jenny Odell has put into words a nebulous feeling that has been bouncing around in my body for a very long time, and I feel like I have been granted permission to live how I want to live. That’s a grand statement I know, but this book is full of grand ideas about the concept of “nothingness” and what that truly means. Really, I found affirmation in reading this- I feel like I have been making choices that will allow me to better engage with my time. I have never taken so many notes while reading a non-assigned book in my life. There are little scraps of paper sticking out like a peacock in full display. Not only did How to Do Nothing label that uneasy feeling that has been ramping up with more fervor since the 2016 election (a moment that drives Odell’s journey into “doing nothing”), but it also introduced me to and reminded me of a treasure trove of authors, thinkers, scientists, artists, and eccentrics that are all handily notated throughout the book. The End-notes are beyond thorough and have lead me to create a list several pages long to bring to the library.
Odell’s case for nothingness is broken into six chapters, all with distinct points to make and ideas to explore: The Case for Nothing, The Impossibility of Retreat, Anatomy of a Refusal, Exercises in Attention, Ecology of Strangers, and Restoring the Grounds of Thought. Odell made a statement early on about how she changed her mind multiple times throughout the research and creation of the book, and it was comforting for me to be able to swim with the current throughout of “hey, that’s how I’ve been thinking!”, “oh, that’s not for me”, and “well, maybe I should reassess this situation” without the stresses of “THIS IS LAW FOLLOW IT TO THE RULE”.
The second chapter, The Impossibility of Retreat, stuck tightest to my memory. It’s full of of poking about in Utopian communes of the 60s, Walden II, Thomas Merton, Digital Detox- so many people trying to disconnect, but ultimately changing ideas as opposed to changing the world. In the summer of 2009 I briefly took myself “off the grid”, but I did not separate myself from people. I barely took myself away from the world; I just departed from the constant assault on my attention from outside forces. It was an exhilarating experience because I was wholly content in the space that I had created among others and the world (it didn’t hurt that I was in an idyllic old summer camp cabin), and that separation relied on the community of people, places, and things that I had chosen to attend to. I was beyond the reach of things that got in the way, and I was able to briefly find my own way. I frequently think of wanting to disappear again, but every step back is a retreat away from things that really matter and responsibilities to the social and ecological communities where I wish to exist. Odell gets it:
In any narrative of escape , this is a pivotal point. Do you pack all your things in a van, say ‘Fuck it’, and never look back? What responsibility do you have to the world you left behind, if any? And what are you going to do out there?
What are you going to do out there?! Right now, so much of our “out there” is in the digital space. It’s tied up in a rigged attention economy. How to Do Nothing is a challenge- not a “how-to”. It challenges us to wrest our attention back from corporations and personal brands. It dares us to spend our nothing rebuilding our relationships with our communities, our ecosystems, and those who came before.
If you need me, I’ll be standing in my nearby park handing out copies of How to Do Nothing to anyone who approaches.