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Tom Lutz on Doing Nothing

Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), embodies a new type of book - new to me, anyway - one that I'm tempted to call the "California Monograph." The first exemplar of this sort of writing that I came across was Leo Braudy's From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 2003), which I read two years ago. I didn't write it up, because I didn't know quite what to make of it. Mr Braudy had lots and lots of interesting things to say about manliness, but I feared that I'd missed the message. Mr Lutz's book suggests that looking for messages in this kind of literature is superfluous, because messages are superfluous. The idea is to present the complexity of life while avoiding neat, reductive generalizations.

Doing Nothing is an engaging read, almost as stuffed with interesting details as From Chivalry to Terror. It is in one way a companion volume: where Mr Braudy looked at warfare as the defining masculine activity, Mr Lutz recognizes that idleness is the masculine daydream. (It's interesting to note that the two come together in the underworld of thugs, where extended idleness is punctuated by occasional improvisatory violence.) Doing Nothing delivers on its promise to trace the history of this daydream in America, and it does so by parading the various shapes and figures that have incarnated idleness over the past two centuries and more, beginning with the apparent philosophical difference between Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. Franklin exhorted his readers to be busy and productive; Johnson published The Idler. Right from the start, however, Mr Lutz is eager to muddy the picture. Late in life, particularly during his long mission at Paris, Franklin was a sybarite, spending his days and nights enjoying the pleasure of conversations with pretty ladies. Johnson, meanwhile, labored to produce the Dictionary, a monumental effort that indeed produced a monument. Which one was the worker, which the drone? In each of the seven subsequent chapters, we're presented with the equally puzzling archetypes of indolence that were associated with the age: the loungers and Rip van Winkles of the early Republic, the communists and bohemians of the Civil-War era, the neurasthenics of the Gilded Age, the Flappers of the Twenties and the bums of the Depression, the Beats, the hippies, and, finally, today's slackers - many of whom, such as the Japanese hikikomori, seem to me to be in serious need of medical attention.

Relying wholly on documentary evidence, Doing Nothing is necessarily a review of narratives. Only occasionally does Mr Lutz dig for facts and figures; his concern is with changing attitudes toward work and leisure, and these are for the most part reflected in writings (and in other media later) of some sophistication. I was intrigued to meet Joseph Dennie...

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