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.
Odell’s first book...echoes...a collage (or maybe it’s a compost heap) of ideas about detaching from life online, built out of scraps collected from artists, writers, critics and philosophers ... Then, summoning the ideas of others, she goes on to construct a complex, smart and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto ... She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things ... But her book is least convincing when she suggests that meaningful political change would follow if the strategies she has adopted were taken up en masse. Though she acknowledges that she’s lucky to be able to exercise the freedom to while away the hours in her favorite rose garden or to go bird-watching, Odell seems to disregard just how individualistic her strategies are. She lives an artistic life, one that lends itself wonderfully to aesthetic expression but is less useful in the political realm. And yet Odell’s book...has the potential to improve a reader’s behavior.
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.