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The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations by Al Gini


Rating: (Recommended)


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Time Out

Sneak a few minutes of time on your next business trip to read Al Gini’s new book, The Importance of Being Lazy. Do not read this book during leisure time or vacation. More seriously written than you might expect, I can almost imagine philosophy Professor Gini keeping quotes and poignant phrases on 3 x 5 cards (or on a computer) for use in this book. Here’s the beginning of chapter 5, “Shopping as Leisure and Play,” (pp. 81-85):

“The idea of more, of ever increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught by it as an addict by his drugs.” – Paul Wachtel


Whether for a week, weeks at a time, or just a weekend, millions of Americans go on vacation each year. Millions and millions more, however, out of choice or necessity, don't. So, the question becomes—for those who do not travel, do not take a vacation—how do they recreate? What do they do for leisure? How do they play?

According to the Harvard economist Juliet Schor, although lots of Americans seek solace in hobbies, in volunteer organizations, in the contemplative solitude of a book, or in the aesthetics and anesthetic effects of television, most of us seek comfort and consolation in the pleasures and products of shopping. In her disturbingly accurate book The Ovetspent American, Schor argues that we are both children and captives of a "culture of consumerism." For far too many of us, "shopping till we drop" is not lust a satirical cliche but, rather, an honorific—a lifestyle to be wished for and sought after.


In America, Schor argues, shopping has become a "primary pleasure principle," a "birthright," and our most common form of "psychological release" and "stress reduction." It has been transmogrified from a "basic necessity," to a "form of recreation," to a "lifestyle." For more and more of us, the activities and rituals of shopping have become our main means of recreation and diversion. It is the vehicle that more and more of us use to vacate ourselves from our workaday lives.

In his fascinating book The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America's Past, Rediscovering the Future, the journalist and political commentator Michael Elliot suggests that the birth of our "modern culture of consumerism" coincides with the end of World War II. In 1945, says Elliot, based on the "twin rocks of its economic and military might," America "bestrode the . . . world like a colossus." Not only had we militarily defeated the Axis powers in the field, but we had also produced the necessary military hardware, both for ourselves and our Allies, to do so. After the war the issue became: could we reconvert to a peacetime economy? Could we beat and bend our bullets back into plowshares? Clearly, the answer was yes. By 1946, the United States accounted for more than 40 percent of the world’s total economic output, higher than any nation before. Cars were once again rolling off assembly lines, that had been producing tanks, household goods were back on the shelves at Sears and Montgomery Ward, rationing was over, and universities were jammed with ex-GIs eager to better themselves. The general economy was in high gear. It was no longer "the worst of times"; it was we were righteously convinced—"the best of times." We embraced the "golden years," says Elliot, as the fruition of the "American Dream." We had survived the Depression, won the war, and had officially become a "people of plenty" As one commentator described America's attitude in the 1950s: "The War is over. Lets make babies and build houses and get down to business."" The postwar boom economy was a benchmark we sought to maintain, expand, and pass on to future generations.*


On the basis of Schors calculations, the level of production in America since 1948 has more than doubled. What this means is that we can now produce enough goods and services to live at our 1948 standard of living (measured in market-available services and goods) in less than half the time it took in 1948. This in turn means that if we chose to, we could work four hours a day; or work a year in six months; or every worker in America could take every other year off with pay. Just do the arithmetic, says Schor. So why—given our poverty of time and the burdens of work—haven't we traded our prosperity for leisure?' "Why," asks Schor, "has leisure been such a conspicuous casualty of prosperity?" Or, as Daniel Bell put it, what keeps the American worker, "like the mythical figure of Ixion," chained seemingly forever to the endless revolving wheel of work?' The answer, of course, is obvious. In biblical terms, it’s called "things of the flesh." In economic terms, it is called the "immediate gratification of consumer goods"—a house, a car, appliances, gadgets, whatnots, and all manner of other creature comforts.

Free-market capitalism and its fruits (consumer products and services), says the economist William Grieder, is the secular religion of our time.'' Simply put, we have become addicted to the fruits of our production. We have traded our time and remain chained to our jobs in order to obtain consumer products and services. We-have deconstructed Aristotle's adage "the purpose of work is the attainment of leisure" to the far baser notion "I work in order to consume and possess." We have become a society of "conspicuous consumers" where wants equal needs, and needs clamor for instant fulfillment and gratification.

In his now classic antiestablishment text. One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse points out that we have made a tautology out of the equation: The goods of life are equal to the good life. Marcuse contends that as a society, we are infatuated with the benefits of science, technology, and industrialism because they have been able to produce a lifestyle to which we have become both accustomed and addicted. In most industrial countries, modern-day capitalism, suggests Marcuse, has fulfilled an age-old dream of humankind: freedom from basic want. No matter what the political limits and drawbacks, the system has proved to be efficient in its capacity to produce a seemingly unlimited number and variety of products and services. We have been numbed by the niceties of the system, suggests Marcuse. People find comfort and recognize themselves in their commodities. They find their soul in their auto, their status and identity in their stereo system, their home, their wardrobe.

In a lesser-known but equally antiestablishment text. To Have or lo Be?, Erich Fromm contends that the ruling philosophy of our day is not "to be much" but "to have much." We are caught, he says, in a consumer society in which individuals are known both by their professions and by their power over and in the marketplace. The difference between "being" and "having," says Fromm, is not simply an empty metaphysical notion. It is, rather, the key difference between a society centered around persons and one centered around things. The "having' orientation is characteristic of Western industrial society, in which greed for money, fame, and power has become the dominant theme of life. Fromm argues that in modern society "citizen"and "consumer" are synonymous terms, and all consumers identify themselves by the formula: "I am what I have and what I consume.'"                                            

Consumerism assumes that having more is being more and I if some is good, more must absolutely be better. It identifies well-being with buying, accumulating, and displaying consumer goods and services. Consumerism is perceived as an acquired right and a national characteristic. Though we poke fun at our materialistic obsessiveness—"He who has the most toys, wins!"; "Nothing succeeds like excess!"; "So many malls and so little trunk space!"—we do not renounce it." Instead of disparaging the tendency to want more than we need, we have elevated it to the status of a private duty and a public virtue. We are, seemingly, in complete accord with Adam Smiths dictum: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production."" Wanting more is neither excessive nor a vice in a consumer society. To shop is not merely to pass time or simply to acquire goods and services. To shop is to be!

One way or another, you’ll find yourself reflecting on what Gini says in The Importance of Being Lazy. That’s one reason why you should not read this book while on vacation. Reflecting can be hard work. If you’re looking for a reason to relax, Gini will provide you with ample reasons to take a break.

Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Importance of Being Lazy.htm


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