How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell.

9 comments

How to do Nothing is a manifesto on living in the present. Odell grounds the book and her message in the local biodiverse area of the San Francisco Bay giving detailed description of the plantbird lifehistorieshuman and community evolutions and watershed features of the area. She asks us to look at these details in our own locations by connecting their importance to our own sense of place and time in the world. 

Odell outlines and argues effectively against the attention economy that many of us already castigate, pointing out that railing against the media cycle and particularly social media is less effective than simply turning one’s attention to doing something else. For Odell that has manifested in a fascination with birdwatching; for me it has been the pursuit of my doctoral degree that has seen me read a grand total of nudda books this year that have not been directly related to that pursuit. 

The book is undoubtedly liberal and takes an academic approach to art with detailed descriptions of art and its place in the world along with human’s place in the biodiverse habitats. It takes a long view of the regions and the evolution of human location and a grim perspective of the process of progress and describes an art piece on progress connecting it with the destructive concept of manifest destiny. 

For me it was an 8 hour long justification essay on the way I have chosen to live my life that articulates well many of my own concerns and motivations. It offers an anecdotal history reaching from Greek and Roman philosophers to the hippy commune movement of the 1960s of the ongoing attraction to untangle oneself from the ever-moving momentum of progress and work. 

While it contains intricate details about a range of things, it has a clear liberal academic undertone that has the potential to bore the general reader. If you’re looking for an excuse or inspiration to turn your undivided attention to whatever it is you are passionate about this will serve as an argument for that ends.

9 comments on “How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell.”

  1. I think I need this book to help pull together my diverse and rambling thoughts about how to live. Heady stuff. In my impulsive way, I jumped right over to the library’s website and got in line for this book. Yet another line. Thank you so much for this evocative commentary on How to Do Nothing. (So pleased to see that O’Dell is a multimedia artist, too.)

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  2. The beginning of your post made me instantly think about the people who live in the shadow of the oil industry. The latest “accident” in Texas caused a deadly threat from pollution that required everyone to stay indoors, tape windows and entrances, and turn off air conditioners (in spite of high summer temperatures) until an all clear was issued– people were literally required to disconnect as much as possible from their time and place. To live an authentic life in a broken world is a challenge! Art and passion are great tools for taking on the challenge. Avoiding distraction and facing my own complicity in the world’s brokenness is painful. Because I have so much privilege, I am aware that I am always betraying the greater good. I can’t step out of the unjust systems that are destructive. I can step into a place of revolution, but that demands hope and courage. Globally this time and place requires diverse, compassionate communities that lovingly honor accountability, when necessary, to stay on track. The world is so divided, it’s hard to find that kind of community. Anything that points the way to serving the greater good is important, but I think the idea of a personal journey to wholeness is obsolete. We are personally and communally very fragile. Not doing the “status quo” while undoing it at the same time requires collective energy to stay sane! This community, initiated by Alison, contributes to the energy I need.

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    1. I think you would appreciate this book more than you think, I didn’t include it, but it speaks a lot about activism and protest movements, specifically the longshoreman’s union rallies and why these things are different from some of the protest practices that are around now, specifically the connectedness to space. Its worth the read.

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  3. I am delighted to learn about this book. There is much out there re staying present, being mindful, unplugging, etc., but it sounds like this book takes it a step further. Or several steps further. I I love that it ties to place, to natural and human communities and systems. Paying attention to entire ecosystems, tuning into detail, when we do this it necessitates remarkable change in how we view and move through the world. Thank you for this.

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      1. Thank you for this link. A very thought provoking essay. Really appreciated the discussion re taking responsibility, so important. And looking towards societal and cultural issues and asking what we can do.

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  4. Just started this book and really enjoying. Though it took me a couple of weeks just to get through the 8 page introduction – I think we could do without it and it almost made me not explore further – once I began the first section, I was fully captured by what and how she writes. Thanks for steering me toward this.

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