Daily Archives: January 13, 2011

On Boredom (and Doing Nothing)


“These days…you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking…He is trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.”

–Robert Paul Smith

I grew up thinking an awful lot about my own thumb (not much else to do in the middle of nowhere), which may have been what initially drew me to this book—along with the fantastic artwork on the cover by the author’s wife.

I happened upon this little treasure of a book while browsing the website for the small Tin House Press. In addition to putting out a fine literary journal, they also publish a limited and well-curated selection of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and reissued items, all interesting and well worth a gander.

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself fits into that latter category of items that Tin House Press has chosen to graciously rescue from obscurity. Originally published in 1958 and written by Robert Paul Smith, Nothing is about exactly what it purports to be about—doing nothing. Or rather, making up dumb stuff to do when you have nothing better to do. Although it is essentially little more than a handbook on how to avoid boredom by doing all kinds of fascinating and arcane activities, from “grinding oyster shells against the front stoop for no reason, to turning buttons and string into buzz saws that won’t cut anything, to making paper boomerangs that don’t come back,” there is something refreshing and oddly touching about the ideas presented in this book.

There are so many newfangled ways and means to distract oneself these days, from television to streaming video, YouTube, Gchat, cell phones, iPods, iPads, mobile devices, all supposedly necessary so that we can escape the one thing we fear most—boredom. When I recently asked a friend if she ever gets bored, and if so, what bores her the most, her response was pretty telling; she’s rarely bored, unless she’s mindlessly surfing the Internets, or fiddling with a mobile device. So perhaps boredom has little to do with whether or not one is distracted, and more to do with whether you’re fully engaged in whatever it is that’s distracting you, even if it’s Nothing that’s distracting you. Maybe pure engagement in a simple activity (reading a book, grinding oyster shells) can actually be less boring than surfing Craiglist or texting on your cell phone while also watching TV (this is just a theory, and a fairly biased one, since I gave up attempting to multi-task a few years ago). Based on Nothing, my current theory on avoiding boredom roughly breaks down to the following equation:

(magic + space + free time) x quality = time well spent

After reading this book I even got to thinking that maybe boredom isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, maybe starring into the great, bottomless abyss of boredom can actually be a motivating force to get up off the couch, leave the house, and find out something new about the world, or maybe even about yourself. Although Nothing was supposedly written for children, I think adults too can find amusements in its humble pages.  I personally found pragmatic advice for the New Year in this book, namely: 1) do one thing at a time 2) curiosity and doing stuff is often the best cure for boredom*, and 3) above all else, always carry a pocketknife in your back pocket. You never know when you might want to intitiate an impromtu game of mumbly-peg.


*A lesson that can also be found in the great children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth (thanks to Geo for the reminder)


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