how to do nothing jenny odell book review man repeller
Why Everyone’s Talking About Doing Nothing
05.14.19

I

 didn’t realize I needed to “stop and smell the flowers” until I was already doing just that, like I’d stepped off the storyboards for Bambi. As someone who suffers through allergy cycles every year, the revelation that I’d (willingly!) exposed myself to a bounty of pollen was startling at first. But then I leaned in. Sniffed harder. It was honeysuckle, the same flower I used to pluck from the fence of my neighborhood basketball court with my childhood best friend so that we could drink its mellow nectar. Yes, my nose started running almost immediately, but it was worth it to ride the wave of pleasant memories.

During the past few months, I’ve experienced even more of these delightful nature-nostalgia moments. Like when I noticed — really noticed — that every other building in my neighborhood was draped in wisteria, the same striking purple bloom that used to decorate the library by my old apartment; or when I realized the bright white bell-like flowers that popped up after a long stretch of rain were wild onions, which grew as weeds around the home where I grew up. These revelations were not prompted by some nascent botanical knowledge; rather, I learned about these plants thanks to author Jenny Odell, whose new book How to Do Nothing is simultaneously an ode to earthly wonders and perhaps the most genuinely, well, caring self-care manual of our war-, climate change-, conspicuous class gap-, high stakes political division-ravaged generation.

You should have a thing that tugs at your heart and takes up your time.

“There is such a craving for quick fixes in general, self-help books, things you will download,” Odell recently explained to The New York Times. “I’m looking for a broader shift in how we even conceive of what is worthwhile.” And for Odell, what’s worthwhile is obvious — the natural world around her. Odell’s writing is crammed with details that are charming and lush in equal measure. (Her relationship with two local crows, Crow and Crowson, who receive a dedication in the book, is so tender it made me cry.)

Odell allows that the level of attention she pays to nature may not always be feasible for her readers, or that it may just not be their thing. But she asserts that— and it’s telling that we all need these reminders — you should have a thing that tugs at your heart, and takes up your time, for no reason other than it being your thing. To Odell, what even is time “spent” in the pursuit of developing a passion, in the context of curiosity? Of learning, of exploring? What she suggests is something that feels much more radical: don’t let those decisions be made for you.

Since reading How to Do Nothing, I’ve begun to train myself to savor the moments when I’m not working to pay my rent — Odell is considerate about the fact that yeah, that’s still a thing — and to slow… down… and… think. The first step was cultivating an inner monologue that examines and curates the deluge of information and asks, “Do I need this in order to be a better person in the world?” This has, in turn, evolved into, “Do I want this to be what I remember from this time in my life?” Most of the time, the answer is no.

To be clear: How to Do Nothing isn’t anti-social-media or anti-tech at its core — after all, people probably bemoaned the OG printing press as a distraction from their harvests. (Odell herself is deeply embedded in that aspect of the Bay Area; she grew up in Cupertino in a family tethered to the tech industry that existed well before Silicon Valley became a buzzword, and is now both a professor at Stanford and an artist whose work often plays with “new tech” inventions like Google Earth.) One of the easiest suggestions she makes in How to Do Nothing is to start using the app iNaturalist, a collaboration between my local Bay Area haunt, the California Academy of Sciences, and the National Geographic Society, to help ID local plant life. Instead, the target in Odell’s sights is our voracious attention economy — algorithms and hot takes hustles and #sidehustles and FOMO, all of which diverts our focus and care from thoughtfully invested time, sensitive reactions, and community-building.

I used to feel that I ‘needed’ to have at least two reactions to every push notification.

In this ever-distracted, ever-commodified context, the term “self-care” has arguably morphed from political vision to rah-rah empowerment commercialism. But as channeled through Odell’s vision, it’s a reclamation, a way of reconnecting with the physical world. As a culture writer, I used to feel that I “needed” to have at least two reactions to every push notification-worthy pop-culture moment. First, that “I know about this thing,” and second, “I care about this thing in a way that signals my moral/political/socio-economical alignment.” But reading Odell’s work, and engaging with her philosophy, has made me care less about immediately expressing my thoughts (for the sake of it), and more about examining and processing them. This consideration can redirect an immediate reaction away from, say, self-immolation and instead toward self-reflection. It also allows for tenderly, gingerly giving yourself over to curiosity born not out of jealousy-fueled aspirations or what you think you should care about, but instead replenishing the labor, love, and, yes, focus that you already have.

How to Do Nothing isn’t technically a memoir, but Odell peppers her arguments with personal anecdotes that are both charming and scathingly critical of our culture’s obsession with commodification and ownership — with stuff, with land, with the idea that we’re only responsible for our time on Earth. One of the most poignant moments in the book comes when Odell learns of a creek that used to run near her former kindergarten. When she goes to visit it, it’s fenced off, with a sign announcing that it’s only to be accessed in a case of emergency. “What if the emergency is curiosity?” Odell wonders.

Odell’s vision of ‘nothing’ is about nothing short of everything.

In recent weeks, I’ve been muttering that phrase over and over to myself like a mantras. Yes, the world can seem like it’s crashing down around us. Certainly, aspects of it are. But the real loss isn’t in watching the fires burn now, instead it’s in assuming that there’s nothing worth saving or sharing for the future. Wildflowers bloom brightest after a rough fire season; that isn’t to say we should pour more gasoline, but rather, that we can only appreciate certain types of growth from a vantage point that has space, and empathy, for shifting perspective.

Among the book’s most widely circulated quotes is the powerful line, “Nothing is harder to do than nothing.” This only makes sense once you understand that Odell’s vision of “nothing” is about nothing short of everything. Her writing has recontextualized the “nothings” I already liked (thrifting, plants, writing) and prompted me to go further with them. It’s also sharpened my curiosity about other people’s hidden passions, leading me to ask questions and form connections in ways that I otherwise never would have pursued.

That “nothing” is the entry in your Notes app of song lyrics that came to you in a daydream; or the perfume your friend wore when you saw each other in passing and you leaned in for a hug; or the bird song that wakes you up on the weekends. You can foster personal growth, build friendships, and cultivate progressive, socio-political commonalities based on this kind of shared human “nothingness.” You can make art out of this “nothingness.” And, you can take a moment to stop and smell the flowers — and maybe take a picture to share with people who could have stopped and done the same.

Book cover via Penguin Random House. 

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