Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Thomas Lutz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, $25, 384 pages.
FROM THE BOOK JACKET:
Couch potatoes, goof-offs, freeloaders, good-for-nothings, loafers, and loungers: ever since the Industrial Revolution, when the work ethic as we know it was formed, there has been a chorus of slackers ridiculing and lampooning the pretensions of hardworking respectability. Reviled by many, heroes to others, these layabouts stretch and yawn while the rest of society worries and sweats. Whenever the world of labor changes in significant ways, the pulpits, politicians, and pedagogues ring with exhortations of the value of work, and the slackers answer with a strenuous call of their own: "To do nothing," as Oscar Wilde said, "is the most difficult thing in the world." From Benjamin Franklin's "air baths" to Jack Kerouac's "dharma bums," Generation-X slackers, and beyond, anti-work-ethic proponents have held a central place in modern culture. Moving with verve and wit through a series of fascinating case studies that illuminate the changing place of leisure in the American republic, Doing Nothing revises the way we understand slackers and work itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Lutz eases readers into this sparkling cultural history of stylish American torpor with an anecdote about his 18-year-old son, Cody, moving into his house and bivouacking on the couch -- perhaps indefinitely. Lutz himself spent a decade before college "wandering here and abroad," so his intense anger at Cody surprised him -- and inspired him to write this book about the crashing fault lines between Anglo-America's vaunted Calvinist work ethic and its skulking, shrugging love of idling. An English professor who admits to being personally caught between these warring impulses, Lutz (Crying) has a gimlet eye for the ironies of modern loafing: that the "flaming youth" of the 1920s were intensely industrious; that our most celebrated slackers (Jack Kerouac, Richard Linklater) have been closet workaholics; that our most outspoken Puritans (Benjamin Franklin, George W. Bush) have been notorious layabouts. Lutz's diligent research on a range of lazy and slovenly subjects, from French flâneurs to New York bohos, ultimately leads him to side with the bums. Flying in the face of yuppie values and critics of the welfare state, his "slacker ethic" emerges over the course of this history as both a necessary corrective to -- and an inevitable outgrowth of -- the 80-hour workweek.
Booklist: Samuel Johnson identified literary loafers in his periodical Idler (1758-'60), and here Lutz lays sharp-eyed analysis on society's reaction toward those who repudiate regular work. Productively informing his appraisals of the Thoreaus and Kerouacs with his own youthful experiment in communal living, Lutz weaves no grand theory of the slacker because he finds that wastrels have been different in every generation. In the late 1700s, a disinclination to work was an aristocratic affectation. In reaction to industrialism, the back-to-nature primitivist appeared, embodied by Thoreau, while cultural vulgarity made the Gilded Age vulnerable to the effete cynicism of an Oscar Wilde. In Wilde and others, Lutz nails, with concise sophistication, the mix of anger and amusement such nonconformists provoked. Though a serious study of spongers, this wry book is fun to read. With layabouts such as Theodore Dreiser, the Beats, and our epoch's own Anna Nicole Smith on offer, cultural-history mavens won't be able to pass Lutz up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Lutz's previous books include Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears. He lives in Los Angeles.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
As I drive to meet Tom Lutz at his hotel in downtown Seattle, I hear, on National Public Radio, that on this same date in 1857 Charles Dickens gave his first public reading. In a few hours, Mr. Lutz will conclude a series of speaking engagements that has brought him from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland and finally to the Pacific Northwest. Ten minutes prior to our meeting, my cell phone rings. He has just returned from an interview with a local radio station. When I ask if he needs a few minutes to rest before we meet, he declines. "You must be exhausted by all of this running around," I say."It beats working," he responds.
Moments later, seated across from one another in the lobby, I again ask if touring isn't tiring or tiresome after a while.
"Yesterday afternoon a young woman in Portland asked me which questions I was sick of. I realized I'm not actually sick of any of them. I think it has something to do with the nature of the pleasure we get from work. There's something satisfying about performing a skill once you've learned how to do it. When I was a cook, I liked knowing that I could flip 40 steaks and get them all out at the same time. The same is true with questions. The better I get at answering the questions, the more pleasurable it is."
"What was the worst job you ever had?"
"I was only there for a week, but it was a factory job. A friend and I stood on a conveyer line adding little metal pieces to little plastic pieces that someone else down the line had put together. It was nonstop for hours and hours. You watched the clock and waited for the next break. It was not good."
"Is writing the best job?"
"At times it's the hardest, most frustrating job ever, and it's the best, by far. The sociologists who talk about flow are right. When that's happening, it doesn't matter what you're doing. You could be skiing, you could be digging a hole, but when you're in the flow of it, it's pleasurable, and when you're not, it's pure drudgery."
"Many of the stories you tell are about fathers and sons who are at odds with one another over the issue of work. Is the tension you write about just the natural tension of the father/son relationship, or is it brought about by a changing definition of work itself?"