Friday, December 12, 2008

Book review: How to Be Idle

Book review: How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

This book is a broadside against the insanity of capitalism; in particular the exploitation of workers, and the lives it utterly wrecks.

Quoted in a chapter discussing the insanity of the work world is Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness":

"Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?"

Robert Luis Stevenson's "An Apology for Idlers" is included at the end of the book, and it illustrates the humanism which is at the book's core:

"Extreme BUSYNESS, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality... There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they CANNOT be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is a blank to them... To see them, you would suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man's soul were not to small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another... now the pipe is smoked out, the snuff-box empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as being a Success in Life. ... Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things... The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought."

Hodgkinson fills his writing with penetrating anecdotes. From a chapter on sleep: "I see ads on the London Underground for energy drinks and pills which claim to provide wakefulness to the user. One current ad runs the line: 'Drained? You needn't be.' It claims that such 'daily fatigue' can be 'beaten' by taking little capsules containing various vitamins. You don't get ads on the Underground saying 'Tired? Then Sleep More'."

The latter is the kind of shit you only see in Cuba.

From a chapter on partying, Hodgkinson quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno writing the most sensible thing I have read from the latter's keyboard: "If the satisfaction of instinctual urges is denied or postponed, they are rarely kept under reliable control, but are most of the time ready to break through if they find a chance. This readiness to break through is enhanced by the problematic nature of the rationality that recommends postponement of immediate wish-fulfillment for the sake of later complete and permanent gratifications."

From a chapter on conversation: "Ideas emerge in conversation and are embellished, improved, contradicted or torn apart by the assembled company. Friends will come up with anecdotes that either affirm or disprove some notion. One's ideas are developed, modified. They are taken down from the museum shelf, dusted and put on view. And their true worth is revealed: the diamond turns out to be a piece of glass, the dusty stone a rare fossil." Conversation is incredibly important not only for the individual but for society as a whole. But good conversation is hard to come by in a society where leisure time is a luxury.

From a chapter on the pub: "Fashion took the drinking culture and made the licensed establishment a place to be seen rather than a place to talk and think. In fact, in most of these places it's actually impossible to talk or to think as the banging techno is at ear-splitting volume. What looks like a 'buzz' from the outside is in fact a collection of half-drunk, lonely, insecure people trying to make themselves heard above the din. One becomes hoarse with shouting, and the conversation, such as it is, is punctuated by long periods of staring at the clientele simply because one can no longer be bothered to shout. I was once told that they reason for the high volume levels was profit: 'if you're not talking, you're drinking' was the theory. Commerce killed the pub."

On "The Death of Lunch": "Observing 1930s New York, Lin Yutang also complained that the speed of life was destroying the pleasure of eating. 'The tempo of modern life is such that we are giving less and less time and thought to the matter of cooking and feeding ... it is a pretty crazy life when one eats to work and does not work in order to eat.'"


In summation, as "G.K. Chesterton [a writer beloved by conservative Roman Catholics] put it in What's Wrong with the World (1910):
'The rich did literally turn the poor out of the old guest house on to the road, briefly telling them that it was the road of progress. They did literally force them into factories and the modern wage-slavery assuring them all the time that this was the only way to wealth and civilization.'"

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