Book Review: “How to Do Nothing”

5/5 Stars

The 2019 release “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell has received no shortage of recent acclaim, garnering praise from media outlets such as the New York Times and even former President Barack Obama, and its profound approach to allocating one of humanity’s most precious resources is a fresh take on the world as we know it.

Odell, a Stanford art teacher and avid birdwatcher argues that our attention is one of the most overdrawn and abused assets. At the same time, the “attention economy” demands that we be as productive as possible all the time. What would happen, she poses, if we regained control of our attention and refocused it on things that aren’t productive in a capitalist sense?

The author uses a spattering of examples to make her case in what sounds a bit like a persuasive essay. These references are, at their worst, quirky party trivia and, at their best, relevant manifestations of the “nothing” Odell encourages. More aptly, the point is withdrawing from the mind-sucking life dictated by screens, social media, and work and reconnecting with the world around us. 

“It’s not just that living in a constant state of distraction is unpleasant,” Odell writes, “or that a life without willful thought and action is an impoverished one. If it’s true that collective agency both mirrors and relies on the individual capacity to ‘pay attention,’ then in a time that demands action, distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death-matter.”

It starts with refusal. Odell uses examples to show not only what refusal can look like, but the gravity of it on both the individual and collective levels. She also expands on the ingredients needed for successful refusal – primarily space, time, will, and discipline. Later, these are also the necessary ingredients for sustained attention, which can cause a major shift in the way we live. 

“When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently,” she says. This is perhaps the most applicable of the suggestions in the book, and it’s backed by a study that shows humankind actually “see” much more stimuli than we perceive; our minds are trained, and can be retrained, to filter it adequately.

Lastly, Odell suggests some applications of our newfound attention, and she calls it Manifest Dismantling. It’s a redefinition of progress: not barreling towards the future of new technology, but recognizing the better ways of doing things and, frequently, revisiting the past to find them. She gives examples of cultural conservation projects, the protection of public spaces, and industrial destruction for the restoration of wildlife. 

The form of activism suggested in “How to Do Nothing,” is really not nothing, but less “something” than the exhausting approach humankind takes today: according to Odell, we need to “give up the idea that progress can only face forward blindly.” This book is highly recommended for those who need a break from the competitive environment presented by school and the workplace, or for a reset on their interaction with their surroundings. 

According to author Malcolm Harris,  “This book will change how you see the world.” Finishing it felt like walking from a movie theater into the sunlight – things look a little different.

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