Friday, January 11, 2008

Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz

This book infected me with a particularly virulent (but very pleasant) case of slackerdom.

First, I was planning to read it over the holidays -- I figured it would take three days, maybe more if I wasted more time than I expected. As it happened, I didn't read more than a couple of pages at home, and finished it off while commuting to work.

And then...well, I finished it a good week ago, and I haven't reviewed it -- or any of the books I've read since. So I do need to warn you all up front: this book is catching.

Other than that, it's not all that exciting: it's, as the subtitle declares, "A History of Loafing, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America." Lutz starts off by complaining about his teenage son, who graduated from college directly to Dad's couch, examines his own history of slacking off, and then dives into the meat of the book.

That meat is essentially a literature survey of attitudes towards work, mostly (as the subtitle says) by Americans, but with some side trips to Europe (Samuel Johnson gets the compare-and-contrast treatment with Benjamin Franklin in an early chapter). Lutz is an entertaining writer on the sentence and paragraph level, but, as the book goes on, it becomes more and more clear that he doesn't have any real organizing principle or interesting idea behind the book. Each chapter moves forward in time, covering Walt Whitman, the Beats, and Douglas Coupland in turn. But, again, it's chronological by default, and it all feels somewhat mechanical.

Lutz does take a stab, now and then, at the great dichotomy of worker/slacker attitudes, which also leads him into digressions on union organizing and labor relations in general. And I'll reiterate that all of the pieces of this book are well-researched, engagingly written, and interesting -- but they don't, in the end, quite add up to something singular and substantial.

Doing Nothing is a pleasant read, but it ends up being a lazy stroll through the literature of the last two hundred and fifty years on the subject of avoiding work. It doesn't really build from chapter to chapter, and seemingly forgets things it said was important fifty pages before. There's room for a much better book on the subject...but that one would require a lot of hard work, so I don't seriously expect it will ever be written.

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