How to Do Something

Photo: Ryan Meryer, Amazon

On the day How to Do Nothing was published, I went to my local bookstore to see the author, Jenny Odell, read from her book. Going to a reading when it’s not a favor for someone or at the suggestion of anyone feels a little like going to church to me, or as close as I want to get these days. I crept around the store before it started, browsing in curious silence, then sat by myself in the back and paged through my copy like it was a hymnal.

Odell is a conceptual artist and teaches at Stanford, so instead of reading, she did what amounted to an artist talk with an honest-to-God projector and slides — or, okay, an honest-to-God copy of Keynote and an HDMI cable. I listened eagerly, craning my neck to see her early work, and then the various birds she loves, and photos of the rose garden she visits in Oakland, and images from the performance and conceptual art of various women artists. Granted, I was experiencing a pseudo-churchgoing mood, but still, I found myself moved to tears more than once.

When the lights came up and the audience was invited to ask questions, a series of arms protruding from various iterations of Patagonia vests shot up and their owners made comment-questions about Facebook — these baby-boomers seemed to want Odell to stoke the coals of their outrage while affirming their inability to delete their accounts. Odell gracefully indulged them by sharing that she is still on Facebook but uses a Chrome plug-in that blocks its News Feed — tricks of the millennial trade — and tried again and again to gently redirect. That’s not at all what the book is about, I thought to myself, the spell broken by all of these newly aggrieved 60-somethings.

Odell goes so much deeper than that. She indicts not just for-profit social media but productivity, capitalism, colonialism, and our impoverished and destructive relationship with the environment. It is not about logging off so much as a non-prescriptive guide to nudging yourself into caring about things that are not on your phone. Not because it is a moral good or will make you a well-rounded person, but because it’s soothing and enriching and fun.

“Read this in a park if you can!” was the inscription she wrote in my book. I did not do this, but I did sit in the park for a long time with the book in my bag, meaning to read it but instead spending over an hour sending a flurry of texts to various friends about all of our various work and family problems.

Then I read it first thing in the morning for a week, and, truly, it gave me such weird hope. Odell and, for instance, her friendship with two crows that visit her every morning, can feel borderline corny, but in a way that still deeply appeals. Part of this is because this book isn’t just a book about why we should redirect our attention. It’s a love letter to all the things that Odell thinks are worth redirecting attention to — and for.

Perhaps counterintuitively, much of How to Do Nothing, as well as Odell’s previous work as an artist, is about using technology as a way to pay better attention to the world and people around us. Inspired by her, I downloaded the plant-identifying app she name-checks (iNaturalist; it rules), and for a good week, I stalked around the neighborhood overcome with all of these spring feelings, learning the names of flowers (clematis; forget-me-nots) and almost weeping with happiness, getting no work done.

The idea is that doing something like walking around looking at plants and listening for birds can be an antidote to the paralyzing panic that comes with scrolling through our various unpredictable and disembodied news-feeds while passively generating revenue for technology companies. And more than that, it is a way of recovering the energy and focus and wherewithal — the emotional reserves, really — to actually do something. Read: fight climate change. (How to Do Nothing evolves, in a way that feels inevitable, into an environmentalist argument. “If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both,” Odell writes, “I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.”)

How to Do Nothing came out last month, on April 23. In the intervening weeks, my heady spring feelings have already begun to fade. It got too hot out. Now it’s rainy. I reactivated my Twitter and lost that initial thrill of the newly converted. I still want to work to be a better neighbor, a better citizen, and a better non-internet friend, and I can feel that the frame of mind of her book — the particular calm, hopeful buzz I got spending time in it — is still in my brain somewhere, ready to be accessed. I know that to do that, I will need to do more nothing in order to do something. In the meantime, though, I’ve enjoyed using Instagram to brag about all my new flower knowledge.

How to Do Something