At first blush, the title of Jenny Odell’s book suggests that it is a self-help book on how to make better (dis)use of time, and yes it is, but it’s more than just that.
How to Do Nothing is not a particularly focused book as it doesn’t have one specific point. It is instead a journey into the mind of the author, who has evidently thought long and hard about how else to be in the world. This book is a well-documented curation of ideas, sometimes loosely connected, about alternative ways of living. A more apt title would be How to Do Anything Else.
Jenny Odell is an artist, writer and educator based in Oakland, California. Her digital and physical curations are exciting and she’s known for her love of birds. This book is a stream of essays about her way of life and how she’s arrived at it. It’s a testimony to the allure, difficulty and reward of building a deeper relationship with both the human and non-human world we live in. It’s a manifesto for attention.
She discusses a good many things in the book: bird-watching and public space, the ills of capitalism and the gig-economy, individual responsibility to combating the addictively-designed internet, activism and refusal in performance art and philosophy, the myth of productivity, fluid identity in nature, eco-awareness and bio-regionalism, the benefit of decentralized social networks and more. Yet, she pulls off a good story from this abundance.
For me, the best part of reading How to Do Nothing was the references. It is well-researched! Every topic Jenny discusses is garnished with stories of philosophers, artists, curators, writers e.t.c. that, in one way or another, have refused existing systems or directed their attention unconventionally. The references do a great job of animating the book.
On multiple occasions, she acknowledges that finding the ideas in the book practical requires a certain amount of systemic, economic or political privilege. And that’s okay.
The book is an all-you-can-eat buffet of interesting ideas, the over-aching theme being to devote our attention to things other than the fulfilment of capitalism; to be present in the physical world. If you happen to like the menu, you’re sure to leave with a stomach-full.