Here are a few selections from the table of contents of Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle:
(Chapter 3) 10am: Sleeping In
(Chapter 5) Noon: The Hangover
(Chapter 10) 6pm: First Drink of the Day
(Chapter 19) 3am: Party Time
The book features a full 24 hours of this kind of stuff, essays in favor of smoking, throwing away your clocks, taking long walks, and staying up late at parties. If you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound like a typical self-help book*, I’m right there with you! This troublemaker came to my attention when he was included in the 2007 best books list on Slate for a similar book that he put out in 2007, The Freedom Manifesto.** Among the usual middle-high-brow literary fiction and volumes of top-shelf journalism included in this year-end roundup, here was a book about ditching the stress of a fast-paced modern life for the pursuit of happiness through a very active version of idleness that involves working as little as possible for pay but instead gardening, drinking beer, making art, cooking, reading and napping.
Sounds great, right? Of course, most need only skim the books to realize that following Hodgkinson’s advice would have a ruinous impact on our careers, financial obligations, and good standing in the community. But the spirit of the thing is invigorating, and I dip into a chapter or two of one of his books frequently. Why was I so worried about that report I have to write? Will the world end if I don’t cut the grass today? I don’t even think Hodgkinson takes his own advice very seriously – as a fairly prolific writer and editor of a journal, I would guess that he works a lot more than he lets on, for one thing – but this is the ultimate self-help, written by an Englishman, for a malady that has stricken Americans from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison*** to the working people of today: namely, the unfortunate tendency toward being uptight that causes us to get stressed out over all sorts of things that don’t matter that much.
There are two things that I love about this guy’s writing. The first is that there is not even a hint of preciousness about his prescriptions for a better lifestyle. He’s not crafting an artisinal path to enlightenment by raising goats and doing yoga at the crack of dawn. He’s interested in having time to think, time to pursue things that make him happy, and time to spend with his kids.
The second thing that I love is the sources he cites for his ideas. You will find no double-blind research studies in his bibliography. Hodkinson instead draws on some great literary figures to back up his call for idleness.
If you have even a smidgen of up-tightness that you’d like to overcome, please by all means check out How to Be Idle. And to tide you over until you can get to the Library, here are some of Hodgkinson’s idle idols to give you an idea of where he’s coming from; many of these are in the public domain, so you can find complete works for free on the Internet****:
- As an Englishman and a counterculture figure, Hodgkinson has a predictable affinity for William Blake. He quotes Blake’s 1794 poem London: “I wander through each charter’d street,/near where the charter’d Thames does flow,/And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” His interpretation of this? The morning commute stinks, so don’t go to work*****!
- Robert Burns is central to his argument in favor of beer drinking. Here Burns sings the praise of beer in Scotch Drink: “Thou art the life o’ public haunts;/But thee, what were our fairs and rants?/Ev’n godly meetings o’ the saunts,/By thee inspir’d,/When, gaping, they besieged the tents,/ Are doubly fir’d.”
- Part of Hodgkinson’s awakening as an idler involved a move from London to a rented house in the country. He identifies, then, with Coleridge, who wrote “For I was reared/In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,/and saw nought lovely but the sky and stars” in his poem Frost at Midnight.
- According to Hodgkinson, depression is “a sister to joy and must be embraced.” ******He finds in Keats‘ Ode on Melancholy a way to handle depression — rather than turning to drink or taking antidepressants, instead go for a walk: “But when the melancholy fit shall fall/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,/That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,/And hides the green hill in an April shroud;/Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,/Or on the rainbow of the salt sand wave,/Or on the wealth of globed peonies…”
All right: back to work slacker!
-Dan, whose personal favorite lines about the joys of idleness come from a Silver Jews song: “I’m studying the ceiling/On a little afternoon/And when I paint my dining room/I really hope you come around.”
*And its BF 485 call number means it gets shelved with a bunch of self-help books at the library.
**I’ve read a couple of his books, including his parenting manual The Idle Parent, and they are all pretty much the same.
***Franklin and Edison are the targets of a lot of Hodgkinson’s ire.
****And if you go on to read through these poems and essays for an hour or two while you’re at work, I daresay that Hodgkinson would consider that a small step towards being an idler.
*****Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” crop up regularly in Hodgkinson’s writing. It is a pretty evocative image…
******It goes without saying that he is in no way qualified to give medical advice.
A day of leisure, a day of giving Click here to learn how you can support the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on October 3rd.