A celebration of doing nothing

The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations
By Al Gini
Routledge, New York, 176 pages.

Al Gini is a guy I’d like to have by my side when I ask my boss for more time off, but I’d hate to spend my vacation with him. A professor of philosophy at Loyola College, Gini is the author of The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations, which makes a convincing case that Americans work too much for no good reason. Unfortunately, he’s something of a prig whenever he describes what we should do with more time away from work.

Gini has nothing against the work ethic. He agrees with German novelist Hans Habe that, for most of us, our occupations are like “skin that we cannot take off without bleeding to death.” But Gini believes that Americans have succumbed to workaholism. “Being overworked conveys status and self-worth,” he writes.

The Importance of Being Lazy includes a cartoon in which a boss proclaims to a sleep-deprived office staff, “Great news! Americans now work more hours per year than the Japanese! We’re number one!!” Actually, the research on this point is inconclusive, and Gini concedes that some Americans exaggerate their working hours to pollsters because “being busy means we are important.” But he adds that statistics aren’t the whole story: “The feeling of being pushed, overworked, or too busy is primarily about attitude, concentration, and orientation, and not just about the actual hours we put in on the job.”

And that’s not healthy. Gini claims that, deep down, “we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude, and inertia.” He points to a medical study suggesting that “annual vacations sharply reduced the risk of death among middle-aged men.” He also paraphrases Nazi leader Albert Speer as saying that “Hitler’s chief failings as a military leader were overextension, overexertion, and fatigue.” Well, at least overwork claimed one rightful victim.

The Lazy parade of quotes continues with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (“Modern workers talk about sleep in the same way that hungry people talk about food”), travel writer Joe Robinson (“We’re the most vacation-starved country in the world”), and theologian Wayne Muller (“Too many of us feel that we can be legitimately stopped only by physical illness or collapse. Illness then becomes our Sabbath.”).

At this point in the book, feeling a little queasy myself, I checked my e-mail and came across the query “Never Get Any Vacation Time?” Was this a job offer? A workers’ rights campaign? Neither. I clicked open the e-mail and it screamed, SELL OR RENT YOUR TIMESHARE! It continued, “Do you have a timeshare or vacation membership you never get to use? … Join the thousands of others who take advantage of renting or selling it!” I wonder whether the guy who came up with this scheme is giving himself any vacation time. But I can’t fault his reading of the public mood. In MassINC’s recently released poll on the quality of life in Massachusetts, The Pursuit of Happiness, 53 percent of Bay State citizens said that “more household income” would improve their lives, compared with 39 percent who preferred “more free time.”

In some ways, Gini simply mistimed his campaign for a more Continental work ethic. “We smirk at the French practice of closing down [businesses] in August,” he laments in The Importance of Being Lazy, surely unaware that all things Gallic would be viewed with even more suspicion by the time his book came out. More important, America now has a wartime (if not empire-building) mentality, and the weak economy has many convinced that they’re lucky to have a job at all. As for political leaders, I can’t imagine Mitt Romney telling Bay State citizens that their problem is they spend too much time at work. And for all their talk about expanding health care and raising wages, I don’t hear any of the Democratic presidential candidates calling for more vacation days. No doubt they’re afraid of being labeled “soft” on work.

Gini admits that the “history of not working is short,” with such concepts as sick time and paid vacations coming rather late in the industrial age. And it was only after World War II that vacationing became part of the American way of life. “While not every worker took exotic trips to faraway places,” Gini writes, “knowing that they had ‘time off’ coming to them played an important role in maintaining their mental well-being.”

Not that the reasons for paid leisure time are entirely altruistic. For example, Gini gives auto manufacturer Henry Ford much credit for the hallowed concept of the weekend. After installing a conveyer-belt system in his factories, he discovered that the rapid pace of increasingly monotonous work led to “rising rates of absenteeism, tardiness, and worker turnover.” Adding another day to the traditional time off on the Sabbath gave workers more time to recover–from the strain of the work week but also, I imagine, from the revelries of Friday and Saturday nights. By the 1940s, Gini writes, the two-day weekend was so entrenched that workers “were willing to put in long hours, [but] they wanted the rhythm of the workweek compacted.”

Equally important, Ford wanted to give his workers time in which to spend money on consumer goods–specifically, his automobiles. But Gini says that Americans are now willingly returning to longer work hours “in order to acquire money and stuff.” He cites economist Juliet Schor’s observation that “activities and rituals of shopping have become our main means of recreation and diversion,” and he passes on her startling statistic that there’s “about 16 square feet of mall space for every man, woman, and child in America.”

Shopping is “a desperate substitute for living,” says former Czech President Vaclav Havel. But what is living? Gini turns to German philosopher Josef Pieper for one definition of the good life: “Leisure is time given to contemplation, wonder, awe, and the development of ideas.” I have nothing against contemplation, but what about less noble ways of spending leisure time? Are crème brulées and martinis also “desperate substitutes for living”? Gini is distressed that “70 percent of the American population visit malls at least once a week,” but would he approve if they visited pool halls instead?

If shopping doesn’t count as leisure time to Gini, neither do most vacations. He criticizes the “travel industry” (I would have used the oxymoronic “leisure industry”) for promoting high-cost destinations such as Disneyland, and he dismisses the tradition of using vacation time to visit as many relatives as possible (“a blitzkrieg of organized movement”).

Gini isn’t keen on spending an afternoon at a football stadium, either. He slams professional sports for providing “instant escape, gratification, and pleasure,” though why that’s such a sin, from the Lazy point of view, I’m not sure. Today, Gini says, the “drug of choice” in America is “some combination of ‘drink and sports'”–a statement allowing him to neatly tar Budweiser and the Super Bowl with guilt by association, each one to the other.

Gini never says that leisure is supposed to be fun.

The criticism of sports culture in America isn’t as convincing as Gini’s attack on consumerism (though any literate person would share his exasperation at the number of sports metaphors used in political debate). Giving a list of supposedly alarming statistics, Gini writes, “Here’s one that politicians hate: more people bowl each year than vote in congressional elections.” It’s a tone-deaf statement on two counts. First, most politicians (especially incumbents) are quite happy with low voter turnouts, since they’re easier to predict and control. Second, sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community has introduced the bowling league as a metaphor (yes, another sports one) for a healthy civic life. Yes, it’s worrisome that people pay so little attention to politics, but it seems odd for Gini to knock Americans for frivolousness in a book whose thesis is that Americans don’t value leisure time enough. Then again, Gini never says that leisure is supposed to be fun.

For all his promotion of lassitude, Gini sets a poor example. To him, weekends mean “the freedom to think hard, to be serious, to ponder great ideas”–a rather strenuous, not to mention idiosyncratic, notion of leisure. But then, Gini admits that he doesn’t have a lot of experience in figuring out how to use idle time: “I remain a workaholic primarily out of habit, and secondarily, because a modicum of success has led me to injudiciously overextend myself and take on too many tasks.” In other words, he’s too important to follow the advice he’s giving us. Or maybe he’s just one of those people who lie to pollsters about their hours on the job.

And Gini’s not exactly teaching us how to seize the leisurely day. “In traveling,” he writes, “there is the opportunity or potential for solitude, speculation, wonder, and awe.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide any stories from his own wanderings, so we’re left to puzzle over what this description means. I thought of Calvin Trillin’s marvelous travel writing–about such topics as searching all over Italy for the perfect gelato with his wife and daughters–and wondered whether the guru of goofing off would consider it a kosher use of leisure time.

Gini also says that “we must be very careful in…how we choose to play” so that leisure time is not “the catalyst for camp and kitsch.” Is he worried that too many vacation days will make someone gay? Gini doesn’t seem to accept that free time is inherently subversive. It can lead to loud music, gambling, drinking, sex, and any number of vices. It can also lead to provocative art (some of it campy or kitschy) and to political movements (that is, not only development of ideas but acting on them). Gini is undoubtedly correct to say that one’s leisure time should include moments of quiet reflection, but his harping on this point makes The Importance of Being Lazy seem like a purely utilitarian argument for vacation time. That is, workers will be more productive with more time off, and if we teach them the right way to relax, there will be only benefit and no social cost associated with their additional freedom.

Gini does approvingly cite English essayist G.K. Chesterton’s idea that leisure means “to be free to pursue the unusual, the inexplicable, the irrelevant, the interesting, and the idiosyncratic.” But as an example he uses British leader Winston Churchill, “both an accomplished painter (on canvas, not walls) and a bricklayer.” He doesn’t note Churchill’s more famous use of leisure time, getting snookered.

He does quote Mark Twain (“I do not like work even when someone else does it”), but I suspect that Twain would be appalled by the anhedonia in The Importance of Being Lazy–which, unfortunately, seems to be gaining strength in America. In a 1996 New Yorker essay titled “The Fall of Fun,” journalist James Atlas complains, “If I had to come up with a symbolic representation of the prevailing ethos, it would be a series of red circles, each with a line through it: No Smoking, No Drinking, No Sex. No Fun.”

Meet the Author

Three pages before the end of his book, Gini finally gives a nod to pure pleasure, briefly praising the Slow Food movement that began in Italy a few years ago and is now approaching cult status in America. The concept involves languidly paced meals uninterrupted by cell-phone calls and the like. Gini praises the return to “the primal experience of breaking bread with family and friends,” but he doesn’t see the Slow Food movement as a form of decadence. It’s decadence of a most benign nature, to be sure, one that promotes community spirit, but it’s nevertheless a form of self-indulgence. And that’s not always a bad way to spend leisure time.

The Importance of Being Lazy is an important manifesto for R&R, which is indeed given short shrift in our workaholic republic. Still, it might have been more compelling if Gini had actually attended a Slow Food dinner before he wrote about it. But then, he was probably too busy.