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The cover of The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations depicts two sand-caked feet hanging off the edge of a hammock against a cloudless, azure sky. But don’t be fooled into thinking it a pleasant stroll through Caribbean climes; Al Gini’s short but scattered book is a rather glum meditation, finding more to castigate than to praise about the ways we play.
Gini is a philosophy professor at Chicago’s Loyola University and the author of My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual. In his new book, he sets himself a worthy task: to investigate why Americans’ pursuit of a good time, these days, so often seems to take on the deadening, compulsive character of work itself. He begins with a familiar argument: Increasingly, we play in ways that impoverish rather than nourish our souls. Fast food is displacing the family meal, shopping and the “parallel spectatorship” of “media pseudo-events”a wonderful phrase borrowed from cultural critic Daniel Boorstinare overwhelming our intimate social relations, and our restless pursuit of action through “extreme sports” or other such diversions is crowding out whatever time we have left for quiet reflection. Disneyland and Las Vegas are the most popular travel destinations in America, both representing the triumph of the
organized profit motive over spontaneous sociability. And, not least troublingly, our culture’s glorification of youth makes retirement a barren wasteland for many of the growing ranks of the elderly.
Early on, Gini predicts changes on the horizon in the frenzied pace at which we work and play. “In a very basic sense,” Gini writes in his prologue, “I think 9-11-01 is going to force us to reexamine our priorities on and off the job in regard to how we work and how we play.” But this formula feels rote, and his evocation of the pleasures of laziness seems strangely joyless.
He then proceeds to a wide-ranging survey of leisure and entertainment, with chapters devoted to vacations, the weekend, shopping, sports, and retirement. Gini mixes personal anecdote and a crazy quilt of facts, figures, and ideas cribbed from previous observers of consumer culture. He assembles recent studies showing that we are working more than ever before, sleeping less, spending less time with our families, and reaping the consequences of these trends in rising incomes (for some), increased consumptionand diminishing physical and
mental health. He recaps unsparing critiques of consumer culture from Boorstin, Christopher Lasch, and James Howard Kunstler (author of The Geography of Nowhere, the canonical attack on America’s strip-mall and chain-store landscape). All these critics were writing passionately, even angrily, through the ’70s and ’80s about what they saw as a joyless society gone mad.
But the ideas never really come together for Gini. Each peeks out briefly, suggestively, before sinking beneath the waves: repetitive catalogues of adjectives and awkward observations of the obvious. And his own commentary is consistently less interesting than what he imports.
Here is Gini praising leisure: “Leisure is the opportunity to do other than that which is necessary or required. To do as one pleases. To be freed from the mundane. To be free to pursue the unusual, the inexplicable, the irrelevant, the interesting, and the idiosyncratic.”
Two pages later: “Leisure is time given to contemplation, wonder, awe, and the development of ideas. Leisure is about creativity, insight, unregulated thoughts. It is about intellectual activity, but not intellectual work or utilitarian problem solving. It is about desire, wonder, and unbridled curiosity.”
When it comes to criticizing culture, Gini’s analysis is often broad to the point of meaninglessness: “[T]he spectacle of sports anesthetizes us to that which we are either unable or unwilling to deal with in our own lives.” Wellmaybe. But then this argument is applicable to just about any activity short of psychoanalysis, and so misses the many real problems with sports todaysuch as the extraneous showbiz elements constantly intruding on the action.
Amid all this unsparing criticism, Gini tosses in an avuncular, mock-jovial tone that is frankly jarring: “To deliberately choose not to work, not to have a job when work is available is to be a social outcast. Worse yet, it means your mother now has the right call you a bum!”
All of this bad writing and sloppy thinking prevents Gini from providing a satisfying answer to the questions he poses at the end of Chapter 2. “Why is it,” he asks, “that so many of us have neither the time, the discipline, nor the tolerance for quiet, solitude, and wonder? Why is it that so many of us think that constant busyness and noise are normal, and that silence is a void waiting to be filled?” The answer certainly, as Gini says, has something to do with capitalism.
But it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with a caricature of the American “rugged individualist” with his heroic work ethica doughty figure who hasn’t existed, save in rhetoric, since at least the end of the 19th century. In an age of giant corporations and sophisticated market research, the motive force of the American economy is no longer the pioneer, the settler, the individual entrepreneurbut the mass of consumers who soak up all the weird abundance, lest supply exceed demand and the heavens fall.
It wasn’t long after Sept. 11 that President Bush issued the clarion call for Americans to fulfill their patriotic duty to keep spending, as it were, like there’s no tomorrow. Amid plummeting stocks and sluggish business investment, the insatiable American consumer appetite remained the still point in a turning world and, arguably, the only thing keeping the Americanand the rest of the world’seconomy afloat.
A marked slackening of the urge to buy, motivated by even the worthiest motives, would spell trouble for us all. We have to keep buying. And we do anywaybecause we wouldn’t know what to do if we didn’t, and there’s nothing else to do anyway. If we don’t reflect, don’t spend time with our families, don’t engage in much spontaneous sociability anymore, it’s because none of these activities can easily be packaged and sold, and we grow less familiar with such independent pursuits all the time.
Just as Coca-Cola now entices
traditional tea-drinking societies such as India and China to abandon their ancient habits, consumer capitalism replaces tradition with things it can control and sell. And that process is simply further along in the United States than elsewhere. Consider just one practice effectively snuffed out: Before radio, before TV and the Internet, people in America used to gather together and tell each other stories. Imagine that: People had the patience to sit and listen to an unglamorous persona noncelebritytelling a tale. But the remarkable thing is that radio and television didn’t drive such culture out all by themselves. It was necessary for them to be sold and marketed and propagandized-for. Folk culture had to be turned into kitsch, made to evoke, at best, a quaint and sickly piety.
We don’t remember the things we left behind on the way to modernity, and Gini doesn’t, either. The absence of context leaves Gini’s notion of leisure vacuous, a ritual invocation of the “things that really that matter”whatever those things might be.
Not long ago, the bulwark against corporate culture was manned by such groups as old grouches, pointy-headed intellectuals, and punk rockers (among others). Each used to worry about what would happen when a culture that people made themselves was replaced by a culture that only corporations owned. The first group has gotten older and died off, replaced by a new, less ornery generation; the second can now scarcely contain its enthusiasm for everything pop; and the last has been replaced by a bunch of epigones trying to sound like boy bands with
guitars. Our present-day hipster culture recycles irony without the protest, making resignation into a rallying cry. This makes the national reawakening seem like so much wishful thinking.
It is worthwhile to recall that someone having real-life hijinks with friends is not watching Friends, that someone trained in a living tradition of entertainment doesn’t have to read Martha Stewart Living. Twenty percent of the fifth-grade boys in one Fairfax County, Va., school need Ritalin-like drugs to sit still; Prozac is increasingly used as a lifestyle accessory among harried urbanites who need social edge at work, and we’ve all come to accept this without batting an eyelash. The future, by way of biotech, promises more of the same. All of these innovations count as economic expansion and get factored in as part of the rising standard of living. But by other standards, including some that used to be a part of “the American way of life,” they might all be classified as indices of spiritual poverty. There is no number to measure the latter, no way to talk about it except in terms of a vague sense of the increasing difficulty of having a conversation, anymore, that doesn’t revolve around television, movies, shopping, money, or petty personal or vocational grievances.
And to wonder aloud about the deeper causes of the changes immediately puts one at odds with acceptable opinion. As our Greek chorus of pundits never tires of pointing out, it is one of the triumphs of the American system that ordinary working people take so many things for granted that were once reserved for a privileged few. Included among these new entitlements are, of course, annual vacations, affordable flights, and a perpetual banquet of the world’s plunder, attractively priced. Yet among industrialized nations, Americans make do with fewer vacation days than any othertypically 10 to 13. Contrast this figure with Germany’s 35, Italy’s 42, Sweden’s 32, and Japan’s 25. It is one of the many areas in which American workers content themselves with benefit levels that would occasion riots in the streets elsewhere. In exchange for what? The vaunted “soft power” of Friends, Disneyland, Las Vegas, the Hollywood blockbuster. It hardly seems a bargain worth making, yet our economic policies, dictated by our politics, scarcely give us a choice.
In his epilogue, Gini presents himself as a recovering workaholic trying to strike a more sensible balance between work, consumption, and truly revivifying leisure. He harks back wistfully to the Italian dinners he shared with his large working-class family during his boyhood and, in a predictable gesture, commits himself to the task at hand: “I’m actually going to practice what I preach. I’m going to have something to eat, take a nap, tell my wife and children that I love them, and then we’re going on vacation. Italy anyone? Ciao!”
It’s a wonderful sentiment that all of us should follow up on (assuming we have the means). But though necessary, it’s hardly sufficient: The real reason the five-week jaunt to the Riviera or to the Adriatic Coastconsidered a basic right to the European workeris unthinkable here, is not, as Gini suggests, “us” and our personal fixations on workbut our politics. Gini includes an interview with Joe Robinson, a former editor of an adventure-travel magazine, who advocates for a federally mandated three weeks of paid leave, along with legal protections for those who take their entire allotment of vacation days in a “Work to Live” law that would guarantee the right to play. But he doesn’t talk about what would have to happen in America before this policy would be taken seriously. It would amount to a small revolution that would sweep aside not just our vacation policy, but much of the cant of American political life. It would require more than cheery inducements to “take a breakyou deserve it”; it would require a mass rallying at the voting machines.
It is the measure of difference between the European tradition, which considers the actual condition of life in addition to the profits of corporations, and the American laissez-faire system, which does not. The former knows that there are other things to life besides workamong them: sun, trees, oysters, family, ideas, calumny, intrigue, sadness, joy, afternoon cocktails, love, lassitude. And also laziness, but mostly better things to do than go shopping. In the main: that any civilized and humane culture needs protection from its markets.
Like so much of the culture it criticizes, The Importance of Being Lazy is really a sad story pretending to be a sunny, optimistic one. The pretense and the sadness both spring from the same reversal of the proper order of things. We should indeed praise our culture, at work and play; but we have to build a culture worth praising first. CP