Idle reading: books in praise of laziness

A consideration of two books with different approaches to the same philosophy: the art of laziness.

The creative power of doing nothing is an idea whose time has come. Research by the psychologist Dr. Sandi Mann has shown that we are capable of thinking more inventively after a period of boredom. In ‘Autopilot’, Andrew Smart has presented evidence that our brains are just as active when we’re idling as they are when we’re focused on a task. Marcus Raichle and Jonathan Smallwood have shown that we do some of our best thinking whilst daydreaming. Unfortunately, these insights have yet to make a mark on our daily lives, which are just as frenetic and hurried as ever. Alan Lightman and Roman Muradov are hoping that they have what it takes to charm us into idleness.

In Praise of Wasting Time and On Doing Nothing are both attractively illustrated, inexpensive little hardbacks. Both seem tailor made to be read in short snatches, which is ironic given that both authors rage against the division of one’s life into ever smaller units of activity. Both books are about 100 pages long, and are divided into brief chapters that can easily be read as standalone essays.

This is pretty much where the similarities end. The differing approaches that Lightman and Muradov take to their subject owe a lot to their differing career paths. Lightman is a New England novelist and essayist with a PhD in theoretical physics, whereas Muradov is a San Francisco-based illustrator and art professor. Muradov’s On Doing Nothing sparkles with literary erudition, but is completely bereft of hard facts. Lightman’s In Praise of Wasting Time is more balanced, drawing on history, economics and psychology to give the reader some firm evidence that our relationship with time is unhealthy.

In Praise of Wasting Time was for me the more satisfying read. Recognizing that carefree time-wasting is easier to prescribe than to achieve, Lightman offers practical suggestions of how to build idle time into our daily routine. Far from being trite, some of these suggestions are actually quite radical: at one point Lightman suggests that we will have to change our attitudes toward smartphones and social media in much the same way that society has changed its attitudes towards smoking – and for much the same reasons. Other recommendations include the introduction of ten-minute period of silence at the start of every school day, and the introduction of “screen-free zones in public places, where digital devices are forbidden”.

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In Praise of Wasting Time is a product of the TED empire, and it sometimes reads like a good TED talk that’s been written down verbatim. Some rhetorical devices are included that work badly on the printed page (in the Introduction we’re treated to a list of objects that runs to twenty entries), and there is a little too much repetition and recapitulation for such a short book. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise well-paced book, that manages to educate without making undue demands on the reader.

On Doing Nothing has a much more unique stylistic voice. One of Muradov’s conspicuous idiosyncrasies is to begin each section with an aphorism. Some of these come off rather well: “By observing ourselves, we write, edit, and rewrite a character study”, for example. But just as many seem to be deliberately opaque: “To hear silence is to see the staves on which the notes are hung in order and disorder”. And Muradov does nothing to dispel the impression of authorial self-indulgence. He suggests toward the end of On Doing Nothing that “the reader may ask, Did you work hard on this book about doing nothing? Obviously you did, because the book is excellent (thank you), but isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?”

But sycophantic readers worried about hypocrisy need not be troubled for long – authors only put questions into the mouths of their readers when they know they have an answer! By the author’s own admission, On Doing Nothing is what media types describe as a ‘journal dump’. Muradov took down a bunch of notes “on scraps of paper”, and then “arranged [them] by theme into a fitting order”. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has arrived at this confession. As Muradov admits elsewhere, On Doing Nothing is structured as a series of digressions – sometimes to the detriment of its coherence.

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The redeeming feature of Muradov’s style is that it allows him to cover a lot of ground. Much of the book is only tangentially related to being idle. An equally common recurring theme is the nature of the artistic method. Particularly memorable is Muradov’s suggestion that artistic output has a lot in common with bowel movements. An artist’s work “depends a great deal more on the quality and quantity of art consumed and life examined than on the manner of their eventually excretion”. To extend the metaphor further, “a certain amount of emptiness is good for digestion, otherwise our intake and output leaves no room for healthy contemplation”.

Rather like Gracián in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Muradov’s clipped, epigrammatic style often lends a compelling quality to his pronouncements. When he tells me that “examining your character requires time and space, and a degree of silence” and that “meditation can be an exercise in facing ourselves”, I believe him more firmly than I believe Lightman when he tells me that a frenetic pace of life is causing me to lose touch with my “inner self” – although they are both expressing the same idea.

Lightman and Muradov say similar things on the subject of creativity too. Both agree that having studied a subject, we need to spend time thinking about other things and letting out mind wonder before we can come back to it with a creative perspective. Lightman cites scientific evidence for this conclusion: the average American’s creativity first started to decline in 1990, a date that roughly coincides with the emergence of the Internet, and all the distraction on demand that came with it. It’s fascinating to find that Muradov reaches the same conclusions through an appeal to personal experience rather than to statistics.

Quite by chance, then, Lightman and Muradov have produced books that are much more persuasive together than they are apart. Each complements the other, filling in its weaknesses. Buy them together, and they might just be the last books that you ever read in a rush.