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What to read if you badly need a break but don’t know how to take one.
Worriers of the world, unwind!
Perhaps this sounds familiar: Life gets hectic, nerves get frayed, so you book a weekend away or take a personal day or pencil in ten minutes to sit on the office toilet with your fingers in your ears—but when you reach the moment of respite, you can’t calm down. Runoff anxiety from what’s been ailing you judders through your bloodstream, stressors pounding at the door: Why aren’t you attending to me? they whine. Get up, dummy, there’s so much to fret over!
It’s a truth exhaustively think-pieced that Americans suck at relaxation. We’re unduly stressed, sad even while doing what we say we enjoy. We have to trick ourselves into tolerating tranquility, even on vacation. The perennial explanations for this deficiency include, first, our legacy of Puritanism, the self-flagellating worldview that likened an idle hand to a bat-signal for Satan; and second, the chokehold that our devices have on our dopamine receptors, resulting in a need for constant screen-based stimuli that’s made stillness almost physically painful. Both factors certainly ramp up our restlessness, but another more pernicious and invisible ailment is involved, one that’s steadily entering the common lexicon: internalized capitalism, or the perverse compulsion to apply the tenets of moneymaking to leisure time.
Call it the cult of productivity. Rise-and-grindhood. Side-hustle culture. Or, if you want to get retro about it, Always Be Closing-ness. Whatever its moniker, it’s the anxiety that tells us every waking second must be devoted to earning—if not literal money, then clout or enlightenment or prowess or fitness or a vague betterment that seems always to elude. (A feature, not a bug—if you reach nirvana, nobody can make money selling you all the answers.) Every hobby monetized, every empty moment sacrificed to self-improvement or sculpted to suit one’s personal brand. In this punishing yet ubiquitous model of living, spare time is only as valuable as the dividend it pays, and a life’s merit is measured not in joy felt or adventures had but in some demented ROI, our time on earth reduced to a balance sheet that quantifies any lull, however vital, as a shameful opportunity cost.
Does this ethos spur us toward greater creative output or self-improvement? Not really. It does other things, though. It congeals once-pleasurable activities into mercenary drudgery. Giving your hobbies a crude market value means they stop belonging to you—make your joy your job and you change it, even kill it. (See this masterful summation for specifics.) But mostly our productivity worship makes us feel shitty—for never mastering Mandarin on our commute, or for missing the chance to turn our contented knitting into some sweater-making conglomerate. What we’ve embraced, then, is not a cult of productivity but of guilt.
Two groups arguably feel this most acutely. (Or maybe they don’t, and I just happen to belong to both; if you disagree, write your own damn newsletter.) First are parents, because their leisure time is profoundly diminished, intensifying their self-reproach over “wasting” it on two Top Chefs or a lazy couch nap; and second, women, for whom cultural expectations of duty and propriety are so constricting that “unearned” leisure feels immoral. Downtime is allowed for women once everything under their supposed purview is handled: dishes laundry cleaning cooking bath time bedtime, the social calendar, the mental load, staying trim, looking good, ensuring with every breath and dollar that nails and hair and pubes and boobs conform to standards never agreed to. Only then, only when perfect, may we put our dainty feet up. (And they better be dainty.)
Except…everything went nuts last year, and blew a lot of this up. Working from home with kids was, for many American women, like being murdered all week and then on weekends being forced to make your murderer breakfast. After months of that, most of us—not that many of us were left by then—felt zero guilt about taking breaks, or letting laundry languish, or ordering burgers because boiling pasta water felt like summiting Everest. I stopped believing that anybody, even me, had a right to tell me to push harder or dream bigger or better optimize my time. Rest no longer felt frivolous. It felt about as necessary as air.
And I think we—parents, women, everyone—all simultaneously grasped that this wasn’t just the case because we were exhausted. It had always been so. Who cared about laundry if I was reading a delicious gothic novel, or friend-Zooming, or pretending to eat plastic ice cream with my child, or half-listening to the ersatz wisdom of David Brent for the ten-thousandth time? Listen, if we still need to couch it all in a cost-benefit analysis, then fine: Each of these activities reaped a greater benefit than the hollow sense of accomplishment I’d have gained from dutiful cardio or some Etsy venture, and that benefit was joy for its own sake, the kind in which adults consistently fail to engage. The crucial kind. It took a global catastrophe to help me, us, stop feeling bad for being human.
If said catastrophe didn’t teach you how to relax, I insist that you learn now, before you collapse like one of those noodle-legged triathletes crossing the finish line with diarrhea-filled socks. Burnout is stealthy—you don’t grasp how depleted you are until your eyebrows are already singed off. So treat relaxation like the necessity, the emergency, it is. You don’t feel bad for showering or peeing; why fret over this equally compulsory bodily maintenance?
One way to take back your rest is to deliberately do something for the delight of it, something that won’t earn you a thing. A luxuriously pointless endeavor. Me, I have (among other, dumber stuff) this newsletter. I keep at it because it’s fun, it helps me figure things out, and it’s the only thing I write that nobody edits (bliss!). I don’t need it to do anything, like earn me money or contacts—which, after a decade of pitching and networking and hungry hustling, is therapeutic. It shouldn’t feel radical to spend one’s time this way, but here we are.
I hope the selections below will remind you that you are not a product, and ease and aid your journey toward a future of uncommodified leisure—one in which you never have to feel bad about dropping everything to do nothing.
Author: Tom Hodgkinson
Book; Non-fiction (2004)
How I love this cheerfully caustic, exceedingly British manifesto, which aims to resurrect the sadly defunct literary and philosophical tradition of virtuous loafing—not merely a worthy pleasure, but a noble intellectual pursuit. Quoting everyone from Epictetus to Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde to Herman Melville, Hodgkinson takes us through a day of merry lassitude, broken down by hour: sleeping in, shirking, properly taking lunch, napping, smoking, strolling (see: the flâneur, a walking observer celebrated throughout literature), recovering from illness (a rare instance when we rest without guilt), and hitting the pub (how else to secure tomorrow’s hangover?). The tone is light, but to Hodgkinson, lounging is serious business, the source of all great art. He asks, “Where do our ideas come from? When do we dream? When are we happy? It is not when staring at a computer terminal…It is in our leisure time, in our own time, when we are doing what we want to do.”
Extra Credit: Hodgkinson’s generous, comforting book The Idle Parent (2009) recommends a hands-off approach to childrearing, designed to give kids space to fail, learn, explore, and grow self-reliant. You can also check out Hodgkinson’s sprawling Idler empire, which includes a bimonthly magazine, an annual festival, and an academy to instruct you in all things indolent. (They offer ukulele lessons, FYI.)
Author: Tom Lutz
Book; Non-fiction (2006)
A meet-and-greet with 250 years of inveterate lollygaggers, from Samuel Johnson’s Idler (from which Hodgkinson took the name) to Richard Linklater’s Slacker. (Weirdly, Lutz steers clear of my generation’s favorite deadbeat, Jeffrey Lebowski, but the book is so fun and smart I’ll give him a pass.) It’s a telling look at our long-held views of both work and time spent away from it—as well as our stubborn tendency to codify constitutional chillness as a marker of low character. But, well, that’s just, like, their opinion, man.
Author: Patricia Hampl
Book; Travel/Memoir (2018)
I wrote in a previous Syllabus of my love for Michel de Montaigne (you remember, the guy who stopped fearing death after falling off a horse). In this fierce and poetic travelogue, Hampl reveals that she’s a fan of his, too—of anyone, in fact, who devotes their life to mulling. She visits the sites where some of her favorite ponderers did their best work, including Montaigne’s villa in Bordeaux, where he holed up to wrestle with the big questions, inventing the first-person essay in the process; the home of two Irishwomen who withdrew from life and moved to Wales to spend their days reflecting; and the Moravian abbey of Gregor Mendel, father of genetics and an Augustinian friar, who, between his inquiries into science and spirituality, devoted much time to quiet study. Hampl reveals parallel moments in her life, the daydreams and mental wanderings that sustained and informed her. She concludes that humanity’s essential gift is thought, which can only flourish if you have time to think. She vows to make that time and suggests you do the same. As a child, Hampl drew parental ire for her inclination toward dreaminess; her rigidly Catholic family mistook quietude for sloth. Oh well, Hampl writes: “The tendency to float, to depart, to rest—this power resides within me…It’s pure pleasure. Infinite delight. For this a person goes to hell. Okay then.”
Author: Howard Axelrod
Book; Memoir (2014)
In this measured, thoughtful book—among the most elegant memoirs I’ve read—Axelrod tells of a pick-up basketball game at which he took a jab to the face that permanently blinded his right eye. In the wake of the accident, which left him unable to reliably gauge distance or depth, Axelrod became unmoored. Losing half his vision felt startlingly like losing himself. Who was he now that his most basic mode of orientation had so profoundly changed? To answer this, he decamped to an empty home in rural Vermont, rented for a song, where he had no phone, computer, or television—and stayed two years. He wanted, he writes, “to live without the need for putting on a face for anyone, including myself.” That’s a kind of rest, too, one most of us engage in each day. We go home, unzip and remove our public selves, and recall once more who we are. For Axelrod, that true self had always believed it was safe, insulated from misfortune. His new self knew better. So he went to Vermont to reconcile those selves, to learn to live in a world in which any awful thing can happen, any time—and to feel hopeful despite this, with “a feeling that good days might be ahead, days with other people, days to look forward to. Days I might allow myself to trust.” He emerges from his solitude bolstered, awake, freshly aware of what is—and is not—essential. That’s what rest can do.
Author: Katherine May
Book; Non-fiction/Memoir (2020)
This book also explores the necessity of respite in difficult times, but with a self-helpy flavor—Axelrod tells the reader about his life, May wants to assist with yours. Her thesis is simple: Sometimes life kicks the shit out of you and you must pull away from it to survive. “Winter” isn’t merely a shift in weather, but in the bases of one’s existence:
Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure…Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.
For May, it was a pileup of events: the hospitalization of her husband, her fortieth birthday, the end of her academic job, a months-long illness of her own, and an episode of severe anxiety in her young son. How does she weather the winter? She hunkers down. She hangs fairy lights, makes soup, pickles radishes. When her boy can no longer bear school, she schools at him home: They draw, cook, read, walk, make snowballs. In his wintering as in her own, they see opportunity, fresh ways to cope. They see ways to solve what no longer works. “When everything is broken,” May writes, “everything is also up for grabs. That’s the gift of winter: it’s irresistible. Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not. We can come out of it wearing a different coat.”
Author: Jenny Odell
Book; Non-fiction (2019)
I wrote this month’s intro before reading this bracing, maddeningly/charmingly digressive book, and once I did, I saw that I could’ve just said, “Go read Jenny Odell.” (A note to those from my homeland: She is super-duper Bay Area, and you’ll sink into her Californian frame of reference like a warm bath.) Her thesis goes deeper into the evils of self-commodification, as well as the grim plague of self-instrumentation, in which we use our time, knowingly or not, to boost the profits of others. Our attention is a hotly desired commodity, the alighting of our eyeballs on an ad or feed a lucrative source of revenue, and Odell decries the ugly means by which tech companies attempt to attract those eyeballs, or “the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”
Evading these digital come-ons, writes Odell, requires deliberate resistance, the pointing of our attention both laterally, to all that exists around us, and downward, counteracting the nowhereness of the Internet with a deeper connection to place. It won’t be easy, she writes—“the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way”—but she views these refusals as soul-saving acts. Our lives, after all, are ours, with all the pleasant repose that implies. Early on, Odell repurposes Othello’s plea, which may as well be the rallying cry of the working class: “Leave me but a little to myself.”
Extra Credit: Not about break-taking, but related to Odell’s thinking, You Are Not a Gadget (2010)—VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s work of tech philosophy—argues that big tech really ought to pay us for all the juicy data we give them, without which they could not profitably exist.
Author: Robert Paul Smith
Book; Non-fiction (1958)
You may be tempted to gift this wonder of a book to a kid—moved by its unfussy but weighty ideas, I wanted badly for my son to have it—but they don’t need it. They already know all about the single-minded, inconsequential, curiosity-driven things we do when we’re small, before we know to worry over or regret how we’ve spent our time. It’s adults who’ve forgotten, and who’d do well to remember.
Smith tells, with understated wistfulness, of the “fairly idiotic things we used to do when we were just sitting around in the grass,” like bending a blade of grass just so to make it a squawking sort of flute. “You may or may not know about burrs, and what you can do with them,” he continues; mostly, you throw them at your friends. (If this book doesn’t unlock a dozen childhood memories, I’ll give you my paperclip collection and my best shooter marble.) The point is not necessarily for you to go and do the sweetly time-wasting things kids do—though you can, since the book is full of illustrated how-to’s—but to instead recapture a crumb of that fertile aimlessness, honed back when the pursuit of what intrigued and amused you was all that mattered.
It still does, is the point.
Next time: What to read before starting therapy…