How to Do Nothing is perhaps the best book I read this year. Written as a series of loosely linked essays about finding your place in the world, Jenny Odell’s writing conveyed how deeply personal this journey is.
How did I find this book? My friend Judah recommended it to me; you can find his notes about it here. I started this book nearly two months ago, on September 20th. On that day, I wrote to Judah—
In addition to liking the message, the author’s writing style really clicks with me - there’s something about her long, passionate, stream of consciousness sentences that draws me in and makes me think about how deeply personal this all is.
How to Do Nothing forced me to reflect on my existence in this world almost immediately. It was a vulnerability that I’m not used to from reading, but that turned out to make this book all the more powerful in the end.
Odell’s story weaves together different concepts throughout; at times, it felt like she was meandering through self-reflection. And much like the book, this post will not have much of a focus. Here, though, are some of the concepts that I became more familiar with while reading.
bioregionalism: the idea of being in touch with your local environment, of knowing all of the things that live there, of engaging with the region yourself, and of appreciating the rich complexity of everything around you. Bioregionalism mandates attention to the place around you.
Odell takes a different view of attention than other books I’ve read, like Indistractable. She views reclaiming your attention as something far more fundamental than removing distractions or leaving social media. Rather than changing your relationship with your technology, she argues, we ought to change our relationship with the world.
I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.
How do we do this? One proposal might be through retreat, but Odell strikes this down early on. A permanent exit from the realities of today’s world is impossible. She recounts stories of groups who tried to create their own utopias, to exit society, or to escape from politics—and failed.
Instead, she introduces the idea of standing apart or refusing in place. To stand apart is not to reject this world, but to exist within it while believing in a better one.
To me, standing apart is one of the most powerful ideas in the book. Odell accepts that we cannot run away from our problems, nor should we. Instead, we must accept this world for what it is while working towards a better one.
To stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all the hope and sorrowful contemplation that this entails.
Judah put this well, too:
We cannot run away from the things that we have difficulties with or that we want to change. We must find a way to interact with them on our own terms that aligns with our principles and values.
I truly love this idea. It gives us another reason to pay attention, to connect with our bioregion—so that we can reimagine what the world might be some day, and also so that we might better appreciate it today.
I loved this book. I believe it to be the most influential book that I’ve read this year. Already, I have found myself wanting to connect more with the small park near my apartment. And part of the reason I’ve stopped playing Pokemon GO lately is that, more and more, I take issue with the idea of staring at my phone—supposedly an “augmented reality”—while there’s a rich, complicated, regular and perfectly good reality all around me.
Like I’ve said before, the main sign that I’ve read something good is that it gives me more material to read. Based on it, I have three more books to read:
- Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millenials, which Odell references early on while rejecting the idea of productivity and productive time
- danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which dives into why people are turning to technology and on the some of the problems with this
- Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, which Judah recommended after hearing that I like this book
Returning to this book, it closes with a powerful lesson that I’ll recount here. From pages 183 - 184:
I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days. It’s not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing that I couldn’t turn away.
She ends with an analogy: of being at a tech conference, listening to a couple of talks, but on the second or third day, wandering outside to the nearest park. She might look at the trees and plants, listen to the birds, and try to notice what the park is saying to her.
Seen from the point of view of forward-pressing, productive time, this behavior would appear delinquent. I’d look like a dropout. But from the point of view of the [[place]], I’d look like someone who was finally paying it attention. And from the point of view of myself, the person actually experiencing my life, and to whom I will ultimately answer when I die—I would know that I spent that day on Earth.