Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America [NOOK Book]


From the author of Crying, a witty, wide-ranging cultural history of our attitudes toward work--and getting out of it

Couch potatoes, goof-offs, freeloaders, good-for-nothings, loafers, and loungers: ever since the Industrial Revolution, when the work ethic as we know it was formed, there has been a chorus of slackers ridiculing and lampooning the pretensions of ...
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Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America

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From the author of Crying, a witty, wide-ranging cultural history of our attitudes toward work--and getting out of it

Couch potatoes, goof-offs, freeloaders, good-for-nothings, loafers, and loungers: ever since the Industrial Revolution, when the work ethic as we know it was formed, there has been a chorus of slackers ridiculing and lampooning the pretensions of hardworking respectability. Reviled by many, heroes to others,
these layabouts stretch and yawn while the rest of society worries and sweats. Whenever the world of labor changes in significant ways, the pulpits, politicians, and pedagogues ring with exhortations of the value of work, and the slackers answer with a strenuous call of their own: "To do nothing," as Oscar Wilde said,
"is the most difficult thing in the world." From Benjamin Franklin's "air baths" to Jack Kerouac's "dharma bums," Generation-X slackers, and beyond, anti-work-ethic proponents have held a central place in modern culture.

Moving with verve and wit through a series of fascinating case studies that illuminate the changing place of leisure in the American republic, Doing Nothing revises the way we understand slackers and work itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Dave Barry
… there's plenty of interesting reading in Doing Nothing, which left me with a deeper appreciation for the value of not working. In fact, I wish I could do more of it. Alas, I cannot: these toenails aren't going to clip themselves.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Lutz eases readers into this sparkling cultural history of stylish American torpor with an anecdote about his 18-year-old son, Cody, moving into his house and bivouacking on the couch-perhaps indefinitely. Lutz himself spent a decade before college "wandering here and abroad," so his intense anger at Cody surprised him-and inspired him to write this book about the crashing fault lines between Anglo-America's vaunted Calvinist work ethic and its skulking, shrugging love of idling. An English professor who admits to being personally caught between these warring impulses, Lutz (Crying) has a gimlet eye for the ironies of modern loafing: that the "flaming youth" of the 1920s were intensely industrious; that our most celebrated slackers (Jack Kerouac, Richard Linklater) have been closet workaholics; that our most outspoken Puritans (Benjamin Franklin, George W. Bush) have been notorious layabouts. Lutz's diligent research on a range of lazy and slovenly subjects, from French fl neurs to New York bohos, ultimately leads him to side with the bums. Flying in the face of yuppie values and critics of the welfare state, his "slacker ethic" emerges over the course of this history as both a necessary corrective to-and an inevitable outgrowth of-the 80-hour work week. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Motivated to examine what drives the slackers and loafers of America by the jolting realization that his 18-year-old son is a practitioner of "doing nothing," popular historian Lutz (Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears), himself an admitted quasi workaholic, studies the lives and ideas of 18th- and 19th-century American and British figures who helped shape the work ethic and the rebellion against it (e.g., Oscar Wilde and Theodore Dreiser). He then romps through the 20th century, citing the opinions of such figures as Thorstein Veblen, Bertrand Russell, and George W. Bush, whom Lutz calls our "slacker president." Throughout, he refers to mass media representations of the worker v. slacker issue, (e.g., Seinfeld), eventually concluding that the societies with the strongest work ethic (e.g., Japan, the United States) are precisely those societies that breed the strongest slacker culture. And, indeed, after the long struggle to write this book, Lutz now looks forward to doing nothing (while his slacker son, ironically, works 14-hour days). Although marred by an overload of supporting cultural and historical references, this is an entertaining, enlightening, and engaging history. Recommended.-Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An unrepentant former flower child, now a knowing academic, does some heavy lifting with his sociological history of goofing off. Lutz (English/Univ. of Iowa; Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, 1999, etc.) proves he is not at all lazy with his survey of the ongoing clash of society's tortoise-and-hare civilizations. As the author demonstrates, loafers thrive when the world of work changes. The urge to work waned during the Industrial Revolution and again as old methods of communication altered, he contends. As social historian, Lutz provides a book awash in otiose eddies within the main currents of American (and some foreign) thought. Though lacking footnotes, his text smacks of scholarship, with perhaps a thousand entries in the bibliography-well, maybe it's more like six or seven hundred; we were too lazy to count. Offering historical and current examples of slackers ascendant, the author of course cites Veblen, Tocqueville and Thoreau. He shares the thoughts of Ben Franklin and Sam Johnson, Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac. In his pages, we find Deepak Chopra, a maven named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and a gentleman sometimes known as S. Venkateswaran. The only MIAs are Studs Terkel and a guy named Earl. Lutz puts forth as leaders in the field of indolence famous loafers both fictional (Bartleby, sorrowful Werther, Ferris Bueller) and seemingly real (Anna Nicole Smith, George W. Bush). Along with Marx, Hawthorne, Dreiser, Lewis, the Agrarians, the Beats and others who have written about time-wasters and idlers, our diligent author dissects the work of moviemakers from the days when Jolson sang "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" to the latest French slacker film. Much ado about doingnothing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429978064
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/16/2006
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,221,922
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Tom Lutz 's previous books include Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears; American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History; and
Cosmopolitan Vistas. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Lutz. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


In which the author confronts his son's laziness--and remembers his own, past and present--with comments on welfare queens, workfare, and preemployment testing--the emotional nature of the work ethic--work in the ancient world--Tocqueville, Thoreau, and Whitman on work in America and the trouble with fathers--slacker movies--academic work and other questionable labors--answers to "What makes good work good?" and "What did Jesus do?"--hippies and other dropouts--and the Way of the Slacker.

"Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler."
--samuel johnson, the idler, april 15, 1758

I began this book shortly after my son, Cody, at the age of eighteen, moved from his mother's house into mine. His plan was to take a year or two off before beginning college, and he had come to Los Angeles with uncertain plans. His older sister had moved out a couple years earlier and had a fairly glamorous Hollywood job, and he thought maybe he could get a foot in that door or, perhaps, end up in a hot new band and become a big (alternative) rock star. Either way, he was coming west, the young man, and I looked forward to having him in the house full-time. For a decade he had lived with me only during summers and vacations, and although ours was by all measures a very good relationship, neither of us knew whether we would feel the same ratio of success and failure, the same levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with each other, if we lived together all of the time. We were both excited (if a little apprehensive) about this new chapter in our lives. Whatever else, I was glad that I could give him a base from which to chase a dream or two.

He knew I had taken time off before college myself. Finishing high school in 1971 without the vaguest clue as to where my life was headed, I was saved from the Vietnam draft by a high lottery number. I spent most of the next decade wandering here and abroad, doing the period's allotment of drugs (or maybe a little more), and working, whenever necessary, at whatever presented itself. I spent time as a carpenter, line cook, factory hand, piano tuner, landscaper, gymnastics instructor, day laborer and odd-jobber, lumberjack, kitchen manager and caterer, farmhand, contractor, bartender, and musician. I read Jack Kerouac early in this period and decided I would be a writer, and so all of these jobs were instantly transformed into grist for that mill. Kerouac suggested that literature's raw material could be one's own simple, edgy life, and like many other boys in prolonged adolescence who came under his spell, I became convinced that my self-absorption and confusion were worthy of commemoration in fiction.

And so I became a writer. Not really; that is, I wasn't actually writing anything, and wouldn't publish my first piece for many years, but in my own often pot-, speed-, or acid-addled mind I had become a writer. While hitchhiking around or riding the freight trains, I jotted down a few desultory (and in retrospect mawkishly sentimental) journal entries, hoping that they would somehow become, without too much work, novels--novels imbued with what I felt would be a delicious, Dean Moriarty-flavored, but updated, countercultural melancholy. And in the meantime, my search for a vocation, such as it was, appeared to have ended happily. I was a writer, and my daily life was effortless research. Every profound revelation I experienced after every joint I smoked--that is if I could remember it--became part of my stock-in-trade. I basked in this new sense of purpose and felt, vaguely, that my place in the larger world was secure.

My escapades never did become novels, but even now, I may as well sheepishly admit, I think of them as representing some kind of achievement. Those years of itinerancy and odd-jobbing gave me something I never could have had if I'd gone straight through college and graduate school and into the life of teaching and writing I've been living for the last fifteen years. I'm glad to know how to sweat copper piping, wire a three-way switch, and bale hay, how to feed five hundred people lunch and use an oxyacetylene torch and a chain saw. I feel I know, in fact, what people mean when they talk about "the value of work." I loved the days spent rounding up cattle and moving them to fresh pasture in the Midwest, and the bizarre nights spent with those adventurous or oblivious people who pick up young freaks hitchhiking down the coast of California, or who befriend strangers they find wandering through the lonesome towns of the Great Plains. I'm grateful for the time I spent playing music in low-rent bar bands, glad that I rode the rails from Tennessee to California, from Denver to Pittsburgh, that I lived in a van on the Costa Brava, rode a motorbike through the hills of Montenegro, and choked on mosquito coils in a Thai beach hut.

And so I was pleased that Cody, instead of just following the crowd into college, was taking a more adventurous path. "Anyone can float along with the tide," my father used to say. "Even a dead dog can do it." In a classic case of parenting gone awry, my father said this hoping it would help me resist the peer pressure to drink, smoke cigarettes and pot, have premarital sex, and otherwise imitate Kerouac in the ever-swifter currents of the late 1960s. I adopted it as the moral underpinning for my rejection of everything else he ever said.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     xi
Cody on the Couch     3
The Idler and His Works     56
Loungers, Romantics, and Rip Van Winkle     76
Loafers, Communists, Drinkers, and Bohemians     103
Nerve Cases, Saunterers, Tramps, and Flaneurs     141
Sports, Flappers, Babbitts, and Bums     176
Beats, Nonconformists, Playboys, and Delinquents     215
Draft Dodgers, Surfers, TV Beatniks, and Hippie Communards     247
Slackers     281
Bibliography     321
Index     355
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