Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America
by Tom Lutz
Why Does the Couch Potato Make Us So Angry?
A review by Larry Sears
"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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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