Review by New York Times Review
IN 2015, Jenny Odell started an organization she called The Bureau of Suspended Objects. Odell was then an artist-in-residence at a waste operating station in San Francisco. As the sole employee of her bureau, she photographed things that had been thrown out and learned about their histories. (A bird-watcher, Odell is friendly with a pair of crows that sit outside her apartment window; given her talent for scavenging, you wonder whether they've shared tips.) Odell's first book, "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy," echoes the approach she took with her bureau, creating a collage (or maybe it's a compost heap) of ideas about detaching from life online, built out of scraps collected from artists, writers, critics and philosophers. In the book's first chapter, she remarks that she finds things that already exist "infinitely more interesting than anything I could possibly make." Then, summoning the ideas of others, she goes on to construct a complex, smart and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto. Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling. Odell suggests that she has done this, semi-successfully, by striking a stance of public refusal and by retraining her attention to focus on her surroundings. She argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by resituating ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world. Many of the chapters in "How to Do Nothing" consist of Odell methodically setting out an idea that's key to her philosophy. Among the most important is refusal, which she vividly illustrates through a variety of disciplines. Refusal, she writes, was exemplified by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, whose life's work was to point out the absurdity of conformity. Refusal was also the staple act of Melville's Bartleby, one of Odell's favorite refuseniks (she admires the brilliance of his stock phrase: "I would prefer not to"). And refusal was the fundamental act undertaken in 1934 by a longshoremen's union that led to a strike that spread from the Bay Area to ports throughout the West Coast. Odell understands and acknowledges that doing nothing - by which she means taking time out of one's day to engage in an activity without considering whether it's productive - isn't something that's available to everyone. But her book is least convincing when she suggests that meaningful political change would follow if the strategies she has adopted were taken up en masse. Though she acknowledges that she's lucky to be able to exercise the freedom to while away the hours in her favorite rose garden or to go bird-watching, Odell seems to disregard just how individualistic her strategies are. She lives an artistic life, one that lends itself wonderfully to aesthetic expression but is less useful in the political realm. And yet Odell's book, which complements other recent nonfiction, including Shoshanna Zuboff's "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" and Michael Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind," has the potential to improve a reader's behavior. Recently, on a short vacation in Miami, I caught myself putting on my headphones as I set out to explore the city on foot. I left them behind and discovered something lovely: Birdsong was everywhere. Jonah engel Bromwich is a reporter for the Styles section of The Times.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 12, 2019]