the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Excerpt: Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova

with 2 comments

In her debut novel Everything Happens as It Does, Bulgarian writer Albena Stambolova tells the story of seven characters, their lives weaved together through an experimental structuring of events and relationships. Here is a brief excerpt, taken from the opening chapter.

1. Little Boys and Their Parents

In the beginning, Boris was unable to think about the surrounding world. Things just happened to him, and he had no way of avoiding them.

His parents, for example, meek as they were, looked like a grandpa and grandma rather than a mother and father, and that always unsettled him. His sister was eighteen years older than him, and people mistook her for his mother.

Later, as he grew older, he devised a way to escape. He would try to lose himself in uninhabited worlds, where it was hard to establish relationships of the family kind.

It was with the bees that he first managed to draw the boundaries of something he could call his own.

Before he enrolled in the English Language School in Plovdiv, he had a lot of time on his hands and nothing to do. He made it his purpose simply to pass the time. Afterward the opposite happened: he learned to stretch time to fit whatever work he was doing. And to stay in his room, while his sister’s family, although he was supposed to be living with them, carried on a life of its own.

When he started to wear glasses, the painful awkwardness of his childish face shifted into a look of seriousness. The glasses somehow set everyone at ease, as if things had finally slipped into place. Wearing glasses had the effect of calming the vague fears the family harbored about Boris. Not that they now knew him better than before. But an introverted boy with glasses was less worrisome than an introverted boy without glasses.

Boris could feel the change in people’s perception of him and immediately saw its advantages. Later, when he grew a beard, he could see how, just as the glasses before, the beard replaced whatever it was in him that provoked fear in others. One thing substituted for another. And behind it all stood the child named Boris.

He never asked himself how others did it. Getting to an inviolable place of his own was all that mattered, and he could always tell when he was there.

He learned to do things no one paid attention to. Or to do things in such a way that no one paid attention to him. For instance, he was willing to eat something he couldn’t stand, rather than give himself away and make his dislike known to others. He realized that his mother felt anxiety and, although he could not understand why, he felt he knew enough already.

Excerpted from Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, published by Open Letter. ©2002 Albena Stambolova. Translation ©2012 Olga Nikolova

::[Links]::
Read more about Everything Happens as It Does
Find Everything Happens as It Does at your local bookstore

Advertisements

Written by Gabrielle

January 28, 2014 at 6:49 am

For Your Ears: Podcast Roundup

with 4 comments

Here are just a few podcasts that caught my attention these past few months, with choice quotes from each. You can view my occasional podcast roundup series for Longreads here.

John Freeman and Robin Sloan

Failure was something that these novelists all kept talking about, which is a weird thing with the Nobel Prizes and endowed teaching positions and everything. It’s easy to look at them and think, you’re establishment; but most of them, I think, if they are any good, still see themselves as outsiders. They still feel like they’re one bad sentence away from failure; and they feel like they’re living on the edge, and I think that comes from the fact that they’re projecting the very limits of their imagination and mind out into the world. The things if I said to you now, they would probably be uncomfortable and socially awkward, but they’re doing it by themselves, in the dark. Yes, they have editors and publishers waiting for these books but they never know if they’ve completely gone off the reservation. And so, when you sit down with as a journalist with someone like that, and their book’s not yet out — you’re a month ahead of schedule, sometimes two — and you’re one of the early readers you develop intimacy quickly because you’re one of the first people outside of the inner circle when you’re a novelist of some success you wonder how much they get criticized by their friends anymore, and that’s a very exciting couple hours.

John Freeman, in conversation with Robin Sloan, at City Lights, talking about the art of the author interview

Jerry Stahl on forgiving yourself

I’ve never forgiven myself. I think eventually you realize that it’s just another form of self-indulgence to keep beating the shit out of yourself so you sort of try not to. If you fuel all of that guilt you’re going to be the guy who walks into a room who radiates self-loathing, which God knows I’ve been for years before I realized people were passing out whenever I walked into a room. I think you do it as much for other people because it just becomes a fucking bore to carry that cross around.

Author Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight, Happy Mutant Baby Pills) talks about forgiving oneself on The Nerdist podcast

Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter

I don’t know if I care necessarily about other people’s reactions toward opinions. And I’m not even really talking about jokes. I get attacked for opinions. People get attacked for their likes and their dislikes. And mostly they get attacked for their dislikes because to be negative in the Twittersphere is akin to hate speech almost. [Tells the story of him tweeting something negative about Alice Munro] … The next morning when I woke up I noticed that I had some emails and that sometime during the night while I slept a thousand news agencies had picked up that tweet and I became the villain of the narrative of Alice Munro winning the Nobel.

Now, you can say, you know that kind of sucks, should I have done it? But then you get into this weird self-censoring thing and I’m not really interested in doing that. Yea, I had to deal with a lot of shit from people for a couple of days who felt I was attacking an 80-year-old Canadian woman when in fact I was just voicing an opinion; and that’s kind of the problem with Twitter, I guess, but only if you really care what other people think.

… I care about having opinions and I care about putting them out there, I don’t care about the reaction toward them to the degree that if I cared enough about the reaction I wouldn’t put them out there but I do think that having an opinion about stuff, whether it’s negative or positive, and using your Twitter account to, you know, try to get anything from Stoner by John Williams noticed or various books I liked last year, you know, get them out there, and also having dissenting opinions about stuff, I think that’s cool and I like that about Twitter a lot. What I don’t really care about is if people get super upset with something that I tweet about. I do care about my opinion and I do care about putting it out there but in terms of not putting something out there because I’m afraid I’m going to get a lot of negative response and people want to beat me up, I’m not in that realm.

Bret Easton Ellis talks to Chuck Klosterman about Twitter and Miley Cyrus for his podcast (opens with sound)

Wendy Lesser on reader’s block

Of course now there are books on tape so people who have trouble with their eyes in any way — having the book come in through the eyes — have an alternative. I would say another alternative is to try an author who works very slowly on the sentence level. Some examples are Samuel Beckett, J.M. Coetzee, Emily Dickinson. They’re people who if you read one sentence — or in the case of Emily Dickinson, eight lines — you get a huge amount. So, the issue is not quantity there, and you don’t feel as if you’re speeding through, you can get the pleasure of reading out of a very small segment. But I think, frankly, one should honor one’s blocks. If you have reader’s block at the moment there’s probably a reason like you’ve read too much bad stuff recently and you need to give it time to flush out of your system.

Threepenny Review founding editor Wendy Lesser talks with Publishers Weekly about her new book, “Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books”

Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Political Spectacle

What’s so interesting about tragedy is even as it confirms what we sort of think is true about life, which is most of us just want to have a medium life, without attracting the ire–or the jealousy–of the Gods. It nonetheless is crucial to look at stories about people who go to the extremes, because it simultaneously satisfies our desire to see the great while confirming the rightness of our choice not to be one of them, I guess you could say.

As someone who was trained as a classicist, it’s basically how I see [contemporary political spectacle], you know. So, these things occur to me. You know, but then there are some things that happen which are so strongly reminiscent of actual Greek material–like the Tamerlan Tsarnaev burial controversy. It’s the first thing you think of as a classicist: the refusal to bury the body of the enemy is a culturally fraught situation that calls into question essential cultural values about what it means to be an enemy and whether there is a transcendent morality that applies even to one’s enemies; and this is of course is the central animating question of Sophocles’ Antigone, and so when that started to happen–the Tsarnaev thing–I just thought, I have to write about this. Because it just shows that the Greeks is not just old stuff that we curate because we think it’s good for you. Greek civilization continues to be vibrant because it’s just that they happen to write or make their art in a very elemental way about questions that are animating to all cultures, and so when these things happen today it seems worthwhile pointing out that this has been dealt with in a sort of incredibly distilled way by a great culture, which happens to be the culture to which we are heirs.

Writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn on The New Yorker Out Loud podcast, talking about Greek tragedy

Written by Gabrielle

January 21, 2014 at 6:56 am

Scott McClanahan talks book tours, performance, and publishing

with 3 comments

This interview first ran on The Rumpus. You can read it in full here. Below are a few excerpts.

—-

Collected WorksI first became aware of Scott McClanahan when Lazy Fascist Press released his short story collection, The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1, in May of 2012. The cover looked a lot like a Penguin Classic and it made me laugh. Who was this guy, risking a lawsuit? I asked myself. It was clever, reckless, and endearing. However, it wasn’t until a year later, with the release of Crapalachia, published by Two Dollar Radio, that McClanahan’s words were put in my ears.

The subtitle, “A Biography of a Place,” highlights one McClanahan’s strengths—capturing place. Many of his stories are set in West Virginia, the state from which he hails, but to think of him as a regional writer would miss the point. McClanahan, in all his work, explores people—and those people exist everywhere. A keen observer of the world around him, McClanahan often taps into the characters who populate his family, breathing life into them, and exposing their motivations, their frustrations, and their struggles with the day-to-day.

Through the stories of his Grandma Ruby, a true matriarch; his uncle Nathan, wheelchair-bound from cerebral palsy; and the neighborhood kids who play pranks on unwitting strangers, Scott draws readers into a world that is both harsh and relentless, but also full-hearted and smirky—a cold reality with a sense of humor. Now, just out with Hill William, a short story collection from Tyrant Books, McClanahan shows once again that words can mesmerize.

Defying the laws of geographical assumptions, Scott spoke with me from California—early in the morning on the East Coast, a punishing hour on the West. He assured me that I hadn’t made him get up; he still hadn’t been to sleep.

Rumpus: No one has to go out on tour unless you get paid a lot of money for your book and the publisher says, “You need to go do this,” so what made you decide to take the trip?

McClanahan: Well, I did that kind of Southern leg with my friend Chris Oxley. He played the guitar part of the time. It’s a good show—you’d love it if you saw it. Then I also did, with some friends of mine, what we call the the Future Dead Friends tour last fall, and that was through the Midwest. People were smoking crack, but why do I do it? It’s um…oh gosh…yeah, that’s a good question. Maybe I should think about it a little bit more and I wouldn’t have the financial difficulties that I’m having. ‘Cause they’re not big tour budgets by any means.

Crapalachia

I stayed in a place in Mississippi called the Ole Miss Motel and it was a den of prostitutes and pimps. It really was. I’m talking P-I-M-P as pimps. I almost went into the wrong room one night, and they came and let me know I was going into the wrong room. Big girls with black eyes type of thing.

So it’s fun that way but, this is my answer: I think it’s important for writing to connect back to actual people rather than somebody—you know, a big publisher in New York telling you you should like something. Because you know this is a game, you’re a publicist as well. We know it’s a game. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and all of a sudden you’re in Cosmopolitan or something talking about your book. I don’t want to be in Cosmo. Well, that’s not true. I do, but only if I’m on the cover.

I think it’s important to connect back to individuals who are out there—and by “out there” I mean, we’ve had cultural movements that have been in the middle of nowhere—Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s, right? Absolutely nowhere, and they’ve not only changed American culture but they’ve changed the culture of the world. These bunch of country boys at Sun Studios. And so I think when you are out there and you read for people and you see people, there’s not that disconnect of literature with a lower case L—it’s not literature, the oral word. It’s Carl Sandburg, it’s V. Lindsey, it’s Dylan Thomas. It’s attempting to get back to that place…oh, I don’t know.

Shit, that answer makes no sense.

—–

Hill WilliamRumpus: Your stories have a darkness to them—or they could be very dark—but there’s something that keeps them from going to this place where you’re buried. I’m going to reference that movie again but you were saying how you had this story about a dog that you thought was fun, but the whole audience was devastated.

McClanahan: Yeah. It’s a different perspective. You bring up a dog that committed suicide and some people aren’t going to find that humorous. But it’s all those things together. It’s like your daily existence. Are you in New York?

Rumpus: I am.

McClanahan: So, you know, you’re about to get on the train and go into work and probably within an hour, an hour-and-a-half, you’re going to have all different experiences. Oh my god, like whoa fuck, whoa haha, that’s hilarious, but that happens anywhere really. But I think those are the good things. It’s like being in a relationship. Like, you hate the person, you love the person. There’s darkness there, there’s lightness. That’s part of any relationship—a real, a real relationship.

—-

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

McClanahan: The Sarah Book. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. The hardcover is going to cushy like a pillow. You know how some children’s books are like? So you can dream on it or use it as a sex aid. Sometimes people need to sleep instead of reading.

Written by Gabrielle

January 15, 2014 at 7:06 am

Tove Jansson’s Weather Vane

with 4 comments

In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.

After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.

Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.

I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted into a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.

Lesser championed are her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.

The opening chapters have a flash fiction feel–they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother dead and the father, inexplicably, relegated to the background). The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:

The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea were glistening. The air seemed very
light.

“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”

“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready to just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”

Written by Gabrielle

January 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

New in Paperback for January

with 4 comments

Ring in the New Year with these new paperbacks.

Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap has always loved bars: the wood and brass and jukeboxes, the knowing bartenders, and especially the sometimes surprising but always comforting company of regulars. Starting with her misspent youth in the bar car of a regional railroad, where at fifteen she told commuters’ fortunes in exchange for beer, and continuing today as she slings cocktails at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn, Schaap has learned her way around both sides of a bar and come to realize how powerful the fellowship among regular patrons can be.

In Drinking with Men, Schaap shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. Drinking alongside artists and expats, ironworkers and soccer fanatics, she finds these places offer a safe haven, a respite, and a place to feel most like herself. In rich, colorful prose, Schaap brings to life these seedy, warm, and wonderful rooms. Drinking with Men is a love letter to the bars, pubs, and taverns that have been Schaap’s refuge, and a celebration of the uniquely civilizing source of community that is bar culture at its best.

The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life by Luc Ferry
A fascinating new journey through Greek mythology that explains the myths’ timeless lessons and meaning.

Heroes, gods, and mortals. The Greek myths are the founding narratives of Western civilization: to understand them is to know the origins of philosophy, literature, art, science, law, and more. Indeed, as Luc Ferry shows in this masterful book, they remain a great store of wisdom, as relevant to our lives today as ever before. No mere legends or cliches (“Herculean task,” “Pandora’s box,” “Achilles heel,” etc.), these classic stories offer profound and manifold lessons, providing the first sustained attempt to answer fundamental human questions concerning “the good life,” the burden of mortality, and how to find one’s place in the world. Vividly retelling the great tales of mythology and illuminating fresh new ways of understanding them, The Wisdom of the Myths will enlighten readers of all ages.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor
In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.

Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.

A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can’t save the world with pizza coupons.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.

But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.

In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives—and may be essential to the one fully lived.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?

We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.

Written by Gabrielle

January 2, 2014 at 6:54 am

Favorite Podcasts of 2013

with one comment

headphonesMy good buddy David over at Largehearted Boy every year rounds up year-end lists featuring books and music. On his suggestion, here’s my list of the podcasts I couldn’t stop listening to.

By the Way with Jeff Garlin
Possibly the best find of the year has been By the Way, Jeff Garlin’s new podcast. Recorded live at Largo in Los Angeles, Garlin sits down with his talented friends to discuss all sorts of things. Garlin’s laugh alone makes this one infectious but the conversations will keep you coming back. If you’ve not been listening to it, your 2013 has been a wash.

Longform Podcast
Longform journalism has been making some noise lately and, along with Longreads, the site Longform has done much to propel it into the public consciousness. What might not be as known is that they have a weekly podcast where they interview journalists about their work. The conversations range from particular stories the writer has worked on to how they make ends meet between jobs. I look forward to it every week.

Other People
Just over the 200 episode mark and still going strong, Other People, hosted by Brad Listi, is one of the best author interview podcasts out there. Not content with a simple conversation about the writer’s latest book, Brad delves into childhood memories, the writing process, and anything unique to his guest’s experience that they’re willing to discuss.

Book Riot
Literary website Book Riot started a podcast this year and it quickly became one of my favorites. Every weekend I look forward to the bookish banter of co-founder Jeff O’Neal and Senior Editor Rebecca Schinsky. Together they parse out the week’s publishing and literary news, discuss the latest book gadgets, and go over the week’s new releases. Always fresh. A must-listen.

Late Night Library
If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you can never hear enough about publishing. Late Night Library is an organization based in Portland dedicated to promoting book culture, especially the indie sort. On their podcast Late Night Conversation, along with writers they interview industry people about their various positions and how it works within the chain of events, manuscript to bookstore.

Pop Culture Happy Hour
Hosted by NPR editors, producers, and critics, Pop Culture Happy Hour is a casual conversation about the week’s pop culture news. The chemistry of the co-hosts, their familiarity with each other, is most-endearing. Perfect way to kick off the weekend.

Design Matters
I became aware of Debbie Millman after Maria Popova highlighted her book, Brand Thinking, a collection of interviews with design and advertising creatives. A look into these minds was fascinating, in large part due to Millman’s knowledge of the industry and her subjects. On Design Matters, a podcast hosted by Design Observer, Millman brings her impeccable research and optimism to the conversation.

Slate
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Slate has perfected the podcast. Duration, format, everything. They’ve nailed it. While there are four main shows — the Political Gabfest, the Culture Gabfest, the Double X, and for all you sports fans, Hang Up and Listen, hosted by Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca — they continue to explore themed series. There’s Lexicon Valley, which discusses language, the monthly Audio Book Club, and, most recently, Mom and Dad are Fighting, a frank and honest look at parenting.

Gweek
The popular site Boing Boing has a number of podcasts on their roster. One of my favorites is Gweek, a show where editor Mark Frauenfelder and friends bring authors, artists, and other creative types on to discuss their work. Some recent shows include interviews with Clive Thompson for his book on the Internet, book designer Chip Kidd, and Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly.

Six Pixels of Separation
If you’re the least bit interested in where business and creativity meet, Mitch Joel’s interviews are a goldmine.

Also recommended:
Stuff You Should Know
Recommended if You Like
Next Market (a podcast about podcasting)

Written by Gabrielle

December 24, 2013 at 7:11 am

The Importance of Being Idle

with 11 comments

If you’re anything like me and you ask someone to describe you, “idle” would not show up on their list. I’m the type of person who will walk 20 blocks instead of connecting to another subway; it’s rare that I see a movie in the theater because the thought of sitting still for two hours makes my skin crawl; hang out with me for more than 45 minutes and I’ll suggest we get up from wherever we are and wander the streets; and if I’m not out of bed by 7am on the weekends I’ve wasted my day.

I read Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and other “lifehack” type publications that promise lessons on super-human productivity. I aspire to “robot brain,” my shorthand for ultimate organizational skills. “Idle” is not in my vocabulary. So, it was an interesting choice in books when I decided, last minute, to buy How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder and editor of The Idler magazine.

While at the bookstore register, attempting to finish off a gift card, the bright orange cover propped up on the counter caught my eye. “Indispensable,” the bookseller said when I picked it up. I was sold. Maybe, I thought, just as I hone my productivity skills, I need to learn to relax. After all, recharging is an important part of the equation as well — or so all those seasoned lifehackers tell me.

In blending social history, humor, and profiles of famous idlers from science, the arts, and politics, Hodgkinson makes a convincing case for slowing down. At times, nearly sounding like a conspiracy theorist, he points out how we became workaholics. He quotes radical philosopher Terence McKenna, “… institutions fear idle populations because an Idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations.” He continues with his own thoughts:

It is precisely to prevent us from thinking too much that society pressurizes us all to get out of bed. … Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our fractured, dissonant world.

At one point in the book, the extremity of our situation — our collective discouragement towards idling — is made clear. We’ve gotten to the point as a society that many of us take vacation seriously: what should be a time of leisure has become “over-organized.” Not only are we under pressure to fit in all there is to see and do at our destination of choice but we’re expected to be cheerful about it.

From the first chapter, Hodgkinson flips your brain, putting you in a space to trust whatever comes next.

Sleep is a powerful seducer, hence the terrifying machinery we have developed to fight it. I mean, the alarm clock. Heavens! What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle–clocks and alarms–into one unit? … Is it not absurd to spend our hard-earned cash on a device to make every day of our lives start as unpleasantly as possible, and which really just serves the employer to whom we sell our time?

The chapters in How to Be Idle are broken down into hours of the day. 8 a.m., entitled “Waking Up is Hard to Do,” offers the advice of laying in bed longer and enjoying the half-awake time. 9 a.m., “Toil and Trouble,” suggests working fewer days a week. “Sleeping In,” which is 10 a.m., explains how idling is actually productive, using Walter Benjamin, Sherlock Holmes, and Rene Descartes as examples.

Defining idler as a “student of the art of living,” Hodgkinson finds valuable lessons in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, pointing out that in playing hooky there is potential for a journey of self-exploration.

How to Be Idle asks us to be our better selves — noble flaneurs in today’s fast-paced climate — and urges us to step outside the daily pressures:

As with all aspects of idleness, we should resist the pressure to reject the elements of our lives which do not fit into the productive, rational, busy paradigm that society and our own selves impose upon us.

To make time for conversation:

Sharing is at the heart of conversation: sharing ideas, entertainment and stories. … As well as giving rise to ideas, conversation gives a way of expressing them.

And to look up from time to time:

Gazing at the stars opens our minds to another reality, a mysterious eternal world, beyond material struggle.

How to Be Idle — as compelling as it is humorous — is a celebration of idleness, a lesson in the importance of stepping back, slowing down, and taking a deep breath. By the end it becomes clear, Hodgkinson’s book should be kept on everyone’s nightstand and reread at least once a year.

::[Links]::
Buy How to Be Idle from your local bookstore
Visit The Idler online
Read an interview with Tom Hodgkinson at 3:AM Magazine
Read an interview with Tom at Mother Jones

Written by Gabrielle

December 10, 2013 at 6:55 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: