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'The idler is not lazy. Laziness is for slackers.'

November 2, 2008 |  3:19 pm

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I meant to write about this book when it came out at the end of September. But forgive me: I was idling.

"The Idler's Glossary" is, author Joshua Glenn says, a utopian book, one that goes beyond the duality of work versus nonwork, beyond leisure activity and slacker cynicism to try to reach a Zen-like ideal of idleness. Except that isn't quite right, because trying indicates a kind of concentrated effort that is undeniably non-idle.

Specifically, "The Idler's Glossary" is a pocket-sized book with three parts: a heady introduction, an alphabetical glossary and illustrations by Seth.

The introduction by Mark Kingwell, a professor, navigates philosophical and semantic  twists and turns to approach a precise definition of idleness. It's probably the funniest treatise you'll find that includes ideas from  Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, Schopenhauer, Lao Tzu, Borges and Evelyn Waugh.

At its starkest, the problem issues in what may be called The Idler's Conundrum, which results when the project of idling, though shunning work, succumbs to its own kind of work ethic. Now the idler is once more a slave to an extraneous authority, something beyond his current whim. Take special note of this, for those among your circle with a penchant for organized leisure, as it is sometimes called, may be workers lurking behind a facade of idling.

Kingwell also warns: "The idler is not lazy. Laziness is for slackers." Sorting out the two will be helped by the glossary. Its entries are like this, for "Slacktivism."

SLACTIVISM: A recent slang term that means "taking measures in support of a cause -- signing online petitions, wearing colored bracelets, adhering bumper stickers to your car -- that have little or no practical effect other than to make you feel better about yourself." Too bad that we see slacking as a prelude, at best, to a superior mode of existence (idling); otherwise, we'd suggest using "slacktivism" as shorthand of a revolutionary who, as Foucault put it "whereever he finds himself, will pose the question as to whether revolution is worth the trouble, and if so which revolution and what trouble."

Idling, Joshua Glenn writes, "is not the opposite of working hard, but is instead a rare, hard-won mode in which your art is your work, and your work is your art." While the book is tongue in cheek, its irreverent approach to the centrality of work in our daily lives may resonate more deeply in light of recent economic events. Which doesn't mean you should take it too seriously.

More glossary entries, including "Fart Around," after the jump; a few of Seth's illustrations here.

CAFE: Historically, one of the idler's favorite haunts -- a public space in which intelligent conversation, witty repartee and revolutionary plotting were uniquely possible. Try doing any of the preceding in a Starbucks, though; the laptop- and cellphone-users will abhor you. Online communities aren't as good, but they're better than nothing. See: HANG.

FART AROUND: "Fart" is one of the oldest words in the English lexicon, and farting is nothing to be ashamed of. (In "The City of God," Augustine speculates that men who "have such command of the bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing," began to lose such impressive mastery shortly after Adam and Eve sinned.) Yet farting is verboten in an office environment -- even though pathological distension of the bowel can result if a person holds in flatulence. If you want to fart around, literally or figuratively, quit your job! See: FIDDLE AROUND.

LOLL: To lean idly; to recline or rest in a relaxed attitude, supporting oneself against something. Lin Yutang suggests that we can achieve "the highest wisdom of living" by alternating between the "absolutely erect working posture" and "the posture of scratching ourselves on a sofa." See: PUT YOUR FEET UP, RECUMBENT, SLOUCH, SUPINE.

Joshua Glenn, author of "The Idler's Glossary," is editor and publisher of Hermenaut Magazine.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Yodel Anecdotal via Flickr

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