Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

14th July, 2020

This thoughtful – and thought-provoking – book takes on a different undertone when read in the light of lockdown. Odell takes her time describing her slow meanderings around the Rose Garden in Oakland, California, sitting and listening to birdsong. Last year that might have felt slightly quirky; this year, we’ve all been doing it.

I was expecting Odell’s book to be something like Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book I absolutely loved for it’s practically-minded reframing of our troubled relationship with technology.

But Odell is trying to do something different – to reflect on the political and economic structures that surround us and try to monetise our attention. (I don’t think Newport ever used the word ‘neoliberalism’; it springs naturally to Odell’s pen.) I wasn’t won over by this, but perhaps I’m starting in too different a place. For example, when Odell quotes Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”, I really don’t grasp what she’s driving at. Evidently I need to read Audre Lorde’s words in their original context.

If you approach this book hoping for a self-help manual you may be disappointed. (Try Newport.) But you may well enjoy it if you approach it for what it is – an extended reflection on nature, humanity and the challenges of the society we have built, from a thoughtful and politically engaged artist and technology writer.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: AmazonPowell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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