A critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of as productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.
The parallel Odell draws between the two struggles—for private, mental space and public, communal space—is characteristic of her method. She routinely finds formal similarities among seemingly disparate phenomena, thereby bringing them onto the same plane ... Odell’s great strength as a writer is her ability to convey art’s unique power without overestimating or misstating its social impact ... Searching for a word to describe the form Odell’s chapters take, I first typed thicket. Actually, they are more like the Rose Garden. Throughout, she samples frequently and generously from poetry, philosophy, biography, fiction, nature writing, and art. And she has tended this work carefully, shaping it into branching conceptual paths that frequently crisscross one another ... Ultimately, what sets her book apart from self-help is not a less quixotic set of demands but a more life-affirming endgame.
If Jenny Odell...were a different writer and a different thinker, she’d take the route many others have and tell you the solution to these anxieties is to unplug ... Instead, she proposes a collective shifting of attention that results in a more considered awareness of how we relate to the physical world, to others, and to ourselves. The way to achieve this, she says, is to grow comfortable doing nothing ... luckily, Odell knows it’s both tired and banal to devote a book to urging readers to do so ... Odell takes several approaches to her argument for such a mass movement, threading ruminations on urban theory, technodeterminism, personal experience, and Marxist thought throughout. Amid the book’s roughly 200 pages, many will be pleased to find, she devotes hardly any space to familiar refrains about the relentless news cycle in the Trump era ... By resisting the popular impulse to use Trump as the nucleus of any theorizing about our present moment, Odell is able to outline a much bolder proposition for political resistance.
It’s common, now, to be queasy about tech addiction on an individual level. But Odell’s concerns are more expansive — they transcend not just the individual, but the species. Her diagnosis? Every day, we are robbed of our capacity for meaningful, sustained thought by companies that mine our attention for profit ... How to Do Nothing is not a self-help book. It is light on specific, practical suggestions, and the few it offers can feel vague and unsatisfying ... At its best, How to Do Nothing mimics the experience of walking with a perceptive and sensitive friend, the kind of person who makes you feel, in your bones, that it’s a miraculous gift to be alive at all.