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?"
"The definition of work changes, and young people's prospects for work change as well. The very materiality of work -- from putting cars together to pushing paper to creating and transferring electronic files on a computer -- also changes. Even though parents are living in the same world as their kids, they're just not seeing it the same way, obviously. And, the kids are looking at another set of trajectories. Kids are trying to figure out what's going to happen, but their fears and their possibilities are not exactly those their parents had at the same age."
"Flippancy about work, on the part of the nonworking, seems to be especially aggravating."
"There are always multiple audiences for any cultural product. Some have always found the wit of the lounger or the slacker or the loafer infuriating. Some, of course, have found it hilarious. To find it funny doesn't necessarily mean you agree with the attitude, though.
"In my book, I focus on people who have a specific anti-work agenda, either in their self-presentation or in their writing. It's very rare to find a wealthy person who pooh-poohs work, because it's obviously in bad taste. If you have no money and you're making fun of work, at least you clearly have some kind of courage of conviction."
I tell Mr. Lutz what I heard on the radio, before we met, about Charles Dickens. "He seems to view work from both perspectives, doesn't he?"
"Dickens loves the artful dodger and he despises piety. It's very hard to be a champion for the work ethic without sounding pious."
"On the other hand, the reward for doing 'good' is to retire to a life of ease and plenty."
"In my other life, aside from being a social historian, I write academic pieces on literature. Over the past ten years or so, it's become clear to me that the thing that makes literature 'Literature' is a text that is complicated and that never comes down on one side or another on these complicated cultural issues. Dickens is great, because he simultaneously describes and undercuts opposing attitudes toward work.
"In a way, that's what I try to do in my own books. I give all sides of the picture, but I'm not all that interested in the moral of the story, or of scolding or championing one side or the other."
"Are some readers frustrated by the lack of a stance?"
"Some reviewers are frustrated. They can't figure out where I stand. Others love the compendious nature of that kind of examination."
Looking out the hotel lobby window we see, on the sidewalk across the street, a disheveled man begging for change.
"I was talking to a panhandler outside the bookstore where I read last night in Portland. I asked him how it was going, and he kept his hand out, hitting people up as we were talking. I asked if he was doing all right being on the streets there. He told me he made enough money to rent a couch and kitchen privileges in a house, so he was doing okay. Then he said, "Well, actually it's a love seat, not a couch. But I'm doing fine." His assessment of his career at that time was that it wasn't that bad."
I commented to Mr. Lutz that the homeless seem increasingly more visible in Seattle.
"There's a certain progressive political consensus that means that the homeless are treated better here than in many places. In Portland and Seattle the homeless are more visible because they aren't chased out of every square inch of the city. That's true in Santa Monica, for instance, as opposed to the rest of L.A. Most cities don't have a homeless problem because the police pick them up and drive them someplace else and drop them off.
"We know that the majority of people who are on the street have serious mental illness. We know that the small government movement has made these people's lives hell. Other countries in the world have solved this problem without our per capita income. We could at least be giving them the option of someplace to live. It's a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a horrible thing. It's just terrible."
"What is it about media images of slackers and workers that interests you?"
"When you think about a figure like Chaplin's Little Tramp, he's portraying a person who is homeless. But, the Little Tramp is not a real tramp. I'm interested in these 'slacker' figures that get produced by our writers and comedians and filmmakers and cartoonists. Dagwood asleep at his desk, for example. I'm interested in the function these characters serve. They're very different than anyone's actual life situation, yet eventually those figures do offer people models for identity.
"In my own life, I became Jack Kerouac before I ever read him. It just kind of trickled down as an image, probably from crappy TV shows like Route 66 or something. I got this watered-down silly version of it from the sources I was imbibing, and I became it. I had a self-image that was constructed out of these available, cultural materials. I'm interested in how lives are shaped by these phantasmic images."
Mr. Lutz explains that our notion of what it means to be a hard worker is also a construct of available cultural images. "We get an idea of what it means to be hard working, and then we shame each other into doing our part of the work."
"Deciding what to read from a piece of nonfiction, at a public event, must be very challenging. How do you go about it?"
"It's difficult, because I feel like the book works cumulatively. So, when I read, I don't read straight from the book. I rearrange sentences and explain things as I go along. Essentially, I rework it as an oral document.
"It was clear to me as soon as I started doing interviews about the book that some people thought I was making fun of slackers. I wanted to disprove that, so I read from the section about my own hippie years. Other times I've read the beginning about my surprising anger at my own son's months on the couch when he moved in with me. Tonight, I was thinking of doing a bit from the ending. I haven't decided yet.
"I have this reputation, among my peers, for being incredibly productive, but it's not true. I waste so much time. It's astounding. It's criminal. I am like these people I talk about."