Why does the couch potato make us so angry?
A look at those who would elevate sloth to an art form.
"Everyman is, or hopes to be, an idler." With these words of Samuel Johnson, Tom Lutz begins his latest effort, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America.Skip to next paragraph
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This book is a fascinating - although at times also frustrating - analysis of both workers and slackers throughout the past 250 years of Anglo-American history. It begins as a small family story and then expands into a complex examination of the duality of work and leisure, including commentary from a variety of writers and intellectuals.
When Cody, Tom Lutz's son, graduates from high school in 2001, he asks his father if he can live with him while he plans his post-high school life. Remembering his own journey of self-discovery, working at odd jobs, hitchhiking and "doing the period's allotment of drugs," Lutz, who teaches English at the University of Iowa, eagerly welcomes his son.
Early on, he expects that the young man might explore his interest in music by joining an alternative band in Los Angeles or possibly find a channel for his literary talents working with his older sister in Hollywood.
But his son will have none of this. He is, instead, fully prepared to lie on the living room couch eating, absorbing TV, and sleeping in a perpetual weekend of inactivity. All of his father's entreaties to get up and move are greeted with total passivity.
What surprises Lutz the most, however, is the level of his own anger at Cody. Remembering how his own father criticized his earlier journey of self-exploration, he was determined not to repeat his father's behavior. But his anger flourishes nonetheless.
What is it about the nature of the work and leisure, he asks himself, which evokes such strong emotional reactions? After all, isn't each person's work ethic merely a time-based reshuffling of the ideas handed down to us by the Protestant Reformation?
Lutz, after some reflection, concludes that more is at stake here than just a set of ideas. Ideas can make us angry - but not this angry! He goes on to argue, quite persuasively, that we each "experience the work ethic as a feeling."
Look at the language of work itself, he suggests: "we love our job, we hate our job, we thank God for Fridays and we are blue on Mondays." Indeed, how often are we as secretive about our feelings regarding work as we are about the very personal fantasies of our love lives?
He further suggests, in the book's very compelling opening chapter, that if "the self-made man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps is the typical American, the slacker is his necessary twin, a figure without whom American history is equally unthinkable."
Taking this idea to one more level, he concludes that when we see the slacker idly resting we "can feel attacked or ashamed, insulted or amused, repulsed or enticed" by that image. It is fine if the slacker is me. But what if it is our neighbor - or someone of a different age or cultural group?
With Cody on the couch and himself at work in the study, Lutz begins a superbly detailed analysis of how our culture has reflected on these issues throughout time. Each historical period - from the first machines of the Agricultural Revolution, through the Industrial Revolution, through two World Wars and up through the dotcom '90s - is carefully examined.
We meet thinkers of each period as they struggle with such questions as: What is the purpose of work? How much of our lives should it consume? Can it ever have real meaning and purpose for any of us?
And, of course, leisure comes with its questions, too. Should humans (and for most of history that has meant just men) work hard and then gain leisure as a reward? Or is leisure a more natural state, a time when we can more fully develop ourselves as complete persons? Do artists of any kind truly work?
Although I found myself energized by such discussion on many occasions, at other times I was frustrated. While no one can fault the sheer thoroughness of Lutz's research, that effort does not keep "Doing Nothing" from sometimes becoming a chore for the reader.
Those sections of the book that deal with Benjamin Franklin, Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser, and the sufferers and healers of early 20th-century neurasthenia brim with wit and excitement. But reading about the lives and ideas of Paul Lafargue (Karl Marx's tedious son-in-law), Oscar Wilde, and Jack Kerouac borders on heavy labor. They may have been fascinating men, but Lutz's discussion of them does not make you eager to linger in their company.
Yet despite occasional slowdowns, the journey this book allows us to make is well worth taking. The questions it raises will remain the topic of serious discussion for many years to come.
• Larry Sears is a retired teacher who met with a variety of both slackers and strivers over the course of many years in the classroom.