“How To Do Nothing” – Jenny Odell

Ever since reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, I have learned to not expect anything from a book by its title. This has proven to be helpful in the case of “How To Do Nothing” since the content of the book is not based on the literal meaning of the title. It’s catchy, it sells, so I understand why it was chosen. It’s much more of a guide or a summary of suggestions on how to implement more meaningful activities/interactions into your daily life, which are deemed as “doing nothing” by the “attention economy”. This is most impactfully demonstrated through an experiment, where a woman impersonating an intern did “nothing” at her workplace. Whereas people are often not only doing things directly related to work throughout the whole day, the contrast of the act of pretending to do something & complete physical inactivity proved the point of how unusual the act of “doing nothing” has become to us.

“[…] There is nothing inherently unusual about the notion of not working while at work; people commonly look at Facebook on their phones or seek other distractions during work hours. It as the image of utter inactivity that so galled Takala’s colleagues. ‘Appearing as if you’re doing nothing is seen as a threat to the general working order of the company, creating a sense of the unknown’ […]” (p. 64)

There were a lot of bits & snippets of ideas that I have previously already dived into, so for me personally it was a welcome refresh of these topics. Nevertheless, I generally wasn’t a fan of the way the book was written, it just felt overloaded with quotes from other authors. It often read like a university paper, for example the way the book was introduced, every single chapter broken down within the introduction, which I’m not a fan of. Just add a table of content & the job is done. It felt like the author was obliged to give some more detailed explanations because the topics were all over the place, with often hardly any apparent links between them. I also got the impression as if this was a 2nd or a 3rd draft of her writing instead of the final and edited version for the book itself. It lacked some polishing from my point of view.

The interesting questions that are brought up within the book are the ones that make you wonder whether you have a sufficient understanding of your immediate surroundings. Why the weather is such a universal small talk topic, whether you know where the rain in your region comes from, what the names of the plants, trees & birds in your proximity are. How worrying the addictive design of the apps we use every day on our phone is, resulting in me either having to hide my phone in a different room or put it on airplane mode to finish writing this review or to get some hours of proper reading. In a world where we know the names of celebrities half across the globe but not the surroundings closest to us, this is an urgent awakening call. Another part that particularly spoke to me was the one dealing with the life of millennials & about how sleep is suffering due to their current lifestyles since it coincidentally connected really well with the book I read just before, “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.

“A Millenial himself, he describes the shifting of risk onto students as potential employees, who must fashion themselves to be always on, readily available, and highly productive ‘entrepreneurs’ finding ‘innovative’ ways to forego sleep and other needs.” (p. 89)

I’m not an expert in any way on art, artists’ performances, even the majority of writers the author mentions, hearing about 90% of them for the first time but I’m always curious to learn about new ones. What was quite off-putting though, was the way the author framed such accounts in her writing, making you feel ignorant & as if you’re already supposed to know all of them in a quite condescending tone at times.

“Recall that in ‘Solitude and Leadership’, William Deresiewicz warns that one needs to remove herself in order to be able to think critically.” (p. 141)

Another point that bothered me a lot was that the book doesn’t have as much value if you’ve never been to or aren’t from the region the author is talking about. You’re completely reliant on researching things she speaks about online, which seems to be exactly the contrary of what she tries to convey. I don’t like feeling the need to reach out to my computer or my phone to pull the complete potential out of a book, so I saw that as a part of lacking quality. Especially when a YouTube video is described, the link for which is listed in the endnotes and doesn’t even work, it simply leaves you frustrated during your reading.

What has finally saved my perception of the book was a very engaging book club discussion. Due to the diversity of topics touched upon in “How To Do Nothing”, it offers the space for at the same time a very broad & a very deep conversation. It gives you the possibility to personally reflect on the presented sparks of ideas.

The way I got to the rating was by the exclusion method: I knew for sure that it was neither a 5★ book, since I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, nor a 1★ one, because it wasn’t devastatingly bad either. It didn’t feel sufficient for 4★ because those are the books I would see as highly recommendable to others, which isn’t the case here. Swinging back & forth between 2 & 3★ I realised that “How To Do Nothing” managed to create a diverse space for contemplation & I personally felt like I had quite a few take-aways from the book. Having highlighted various parts, I would see it as a piece of writing I could come back to & browse through in the future. This finally spoke in the favour of a 3★ rating.

All in all, this book makes you reflect, it makes you think about your own habits, it makes you question them. The author also offers relevant suggestions on how to “resist the attention economy”, as it is mentioned on the cover and invest your attention elsewhere in exchange. On top of that, it also probably has the most beautiful cover out of all the books I’ve read in 2020, so a little plus point for that too 😛

“For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.” (p. 179)

“A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind. What is needed, then, is not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.” (p. 93)

“How To Do Nothing” – Jenny Odell

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

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