Doing Nothing

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Tom Lutz’s valuable and readable book swells a tide of recent writing on the meaning and nature of work in the global Information Age. That much low-wage work has become soul-killing, dangerous, or unsustainable is the theme of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Mark Robert Rank’s One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, and Beth Schulman’s The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail Thirty Million Americans. However, even well-paying jobs can be damaging, as Richard Sennett demonstrates in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism; here upward mobility is seen as productive of rootlessness, generational strife, compromised family life, and a sense of futility. Allen Wolfe’s Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice powerfully depicts the erosion of the ideals of mutuality and employer-employee loyalty as outsourcing and downsizing come to dominate corporate life.

Is it any wonder, then, that postsecondary, postcollege, and postmodern young people “boomerang” back to their parents, taking up long-term residence on couches and futons? This is where Doing Nothing begins, as Lutz’s son Cody moves in and commences what seems to be a career of watching television. Recalling his own formative days, Lutz tries to be understanding, but soon enough he is harboring an infuriation whose intensity puzzles him. He cannot suppress the idea that Cody is a major-league slackerjust one more representative of a spoiled and aimless generation. What especially irritates him is that the boy’s inactivity seems detached from an interesting purpose. Lutz would have been happy if this work-free lifestyle protested something or was a staging event for a move toward, for example, a Buddhist spirituality of detachment. “The couch,” he laments, “just seemed like inertia, not the kind of loafing to which one invites one’s soul.”

So an investigation is launchedinto both the origins of the father’s feelings about leisure and work and what amounts to a Western literary tradition of celebrating laziness itself. Lutz presents his findings in a loosely chronological way. Thus, his second chapter contrasts Benjamin Franklin, the very architect of the modern work ethic, with Samuel Johnson, who “almost single-handedly invent[ed] the slacker.” Both men, Lutz notes, confronted a world about to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution, reacting to it differently while nevertheless embracing Enlightenment modes of thought. In the same year that Franklin published Way to Wealth (1758), Johnson began his famous Idler essays. Here he sardonically rejects famous definitions of humankind in order to establish his own: “Perhaps man may be more properly called the idle animal; for there is no man who is not sometimes idle.” The idler is free from envy, rivalry, and strife. He has already “arrived”at the place that is the natural telos of the species. Unpressured by business, he has time for friends and conversation, for “he who is famed for doing nothing, is glad to meet another as idle as himself.”

Chapter 3, “Loungers, Romantics, and Rip Van Winkle,” traces the influence of the Scottish magazine The Lounger, appreciatively read in the newly created United States. The Lounger differs from the Idler in that he or she (female loungers were singled out) is clearly active of mind, a sort of interdisciplinary gadfly in a time of increased professionalization and compartmentalization. Lutz pays close attention to the Harvard bad-boy Joseph Dennie, “the first truly American slacker,” whose trouble with authority makes him a precursor of Marlon Brando’s infamous character in The Wild One (1953). Editing the passionately Federalist Gazette of the United States along with The Port Folio, Dennie sided with those who thought too...

(The entire section is 1663 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 16 (April 15, 2006): 7.

Library Journal 131, no. 8 (May 1, 2006): 108-109.

The New York Times 155 (June 12, 2006): E6.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (June 4, 2006): 11.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 7 (February 13, 2006): 71-72.