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September 2022

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How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who are interested in being more intentional with their time and attention.

In a nutshell:
Artist and author Odell explores ways to be more intentional with our time, and how that relates to community and environment.

Worth quoting:
“That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one, which speaks to me instead in breezes, light and shadow, and the unruly, indescribably detail of the real.”

“The impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn’t just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible, and for good reason.”

“What is needed, then, is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.”

Why I chose it:
The cover kept jumping out at me in bookshops, and then I read something where this was recommended, so figured that was enough to pick it up.

Review:
This is one of those books where the ‘worth quoting’ section could have gone on for pages and pages. Odell is a talented writer, and the book is filled with poetic phrases and insightful paragraphs that get the reader thinking critically about one’s place in the world, the choices one makes, and the impact one has on the community and environment around them.

The book is laid out in six strong chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter, ‘A Case for Nothing,’ makes the argument that we need the space in between, the silence, to think and live and contemplate. And while this ‘nothing’ is often seen as a luxury, she argues that it shouldn’t be – that we all need this time and ability to not have to be productive, to be active, to be consuming.

The second chapter explores the sort of knee-jerk reaction I know that I’ve seen in books that might be considered similar to this one – lets just leave it all behind and retreat forever. But Odell points out that not only is this not feasible for most, it’s not actually what we should be doing, because we owe something to our communities and to those we would leave behind.

From there, her third chapters explores different ways that people have exercised their right and need to withdraw their attention from where the current economy demands we focus it: social media, capitalism, overall ‘productivity’ in the sense of doing doing doing. After making the case of ways to fight against these strains on our time and attention, she then spends a chapter exploring how to engage our attention in other ways. It’s not about finding the right app to limit screen time; it’s about being intentional and recognizing that where we fix our attention creates our reality.

The last parts of the book focus on community, environment, space and time. I could be more specific, but I’m still processing what I’ve read. I didn’t expect the book to look so heavily at environment and ecology, but that is a consistent theme, and the fact that Odell is an avid bird-watchers plays heavy into the analogies she provides. She then wraps up discussing the idea she calls ‘manifest dismantling;’ that is, looking at ways communities have deconstructed the mistakes of their place that have disconnected them from nature and the world around them.

I think my review might suggest this book is all over the place, but it’s not. There’s just so much to contemplate, it’s one of those books that I would have loved to read as part of a book club so we could have discussed each chapter in depth. Regardless, I know this one will stick with me.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep

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