Hardcover, 240 pagesPublished April 9th 2019 by Melville HouseThis book started out strong, then sagged in the middle, but it was alright in the end.
As someone who has recently gotten off Facebook (hopefully forever), I identified strongly with the author's thesis that there are many pressures in our hyperconnected modern lives which conspire to rob us of the ability to think before we act (or speak, or post). Social media hijacks our brains by showering us with dopamine when we churn out timely, pithy one-liners that get tons of 'likes' at the cost of ignoring nuance, paradox, and respect for those with whom we are debating. As each individual is rewarded for chipping away at the ties which bind our society together, it should surprise no one that our society feels more divided than ever.
Unfortunately, I think the average American reader will have a lot of difficulty identifying with the middle portion of How to Do Nothing, especially as Odell trots out the works of various poets, painters, photographers, and performance artists to make her point. I expect that one long passage where she analyzes the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Diogenes through the lens of performance art will be an exit-point for many readers. The overall effect is one of pretentiousness and self-indulgence; readers from non-coastal or blue collar backgrounds will have a hard time caring about the civil disobedience (read: shiftless, lazy entitlement) of Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener". I could almost *hear* the audience laughing at the author's oblivious, tone-deaf attempts to explain to readers why they should attend live performances of John Cage's 4'33", or watch bizarre and plotless foreign art-films like 2011's The Exchange.
But towards the end, the book regained some of its earlier lost momentum. Once Odell gets off her high horse and starts talking about practical stuff that the average American can relate to (meeting your neighbors, understanding your bioregion and your place within it, replacing the endlessly-scrolling newsfeed with a focus on personal relationships and context), the book became a lot more interesting. I honestly think it contains a lot of good ideas, and it could deliver a lot of benefit to anyone who is uncomfortable with their own relationship to technology and social media.
How to Do Nothing is not so much a how-to guide as a philosophical treatise; which I suppose is important after all, and increasingly rare in this constantly-accelerating and increasingly-optimized world of ours. Sometimes it's important to be bored, to sit with that feeling, and to ask yourself why you're in so much of a damn hurry anyway.