Highlights from How to Do Nothing by Jenny O’Dell

Cover of How to Do Nothing
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Highlights from this book

  • We still recognize that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the “off time” that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.

  • When people long for some kind of escape, it’s worth asking: What would “back to the land” mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now?

  • The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

  • I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

  • When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

    — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
  • My mom has only ever spoken English to me, and for a very long time, I assumed that whenever my mom was speaking to another Filipino person, she was speaking Tagalog…bBut my mom was only sometimes speaking Tagalog. Other times she was speaking Ilonggo, which is a completely different language that is specific to where she's from in the Philippines. The languages are no the same, i.e. one is not simply a dialect of the other; in fact, the Philippines is full of language groups that, according to my mom, have so little in common that speakers would not be able to understand each other, and Tagalog is only one. This type of embarrassing discovery, in which something you thought was one thing is actually two things, and each of those things is actually ten things, seems like a simple fuction of the duration and quality of one's attention. With effort, we can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully differentiate finer and finer frequencies each time.

  • When Samuel Gompers, who led the labor group that organized this particular iteration of the eight-hour movement, gave an address titled “What Does Labor Want?” the answer he arrived at was, “It wants the earth and the fullness thereof”.

  • I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully.

  • If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

    — Henry David Thoreau
  • Differences in social and financial vulnerability explain why participants in mass acts of refusal have often been, and continue to be, students. James C. McMillan, an art professor at Bennett College who advised students when they participated in the 1960s Greensboro sit-ins, said that black adults were “reluctant” to “jeopardize any gains, economic or otherwise,” but that the students “did not have that kind of an investment, that kind of economic status, and, therefore, were not vulnerable to the kind of reprisals that could have occurred.”

  • If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive stress injury of the spirit set in?

    — Barbara Ehrenreich
  • In her piece on the Prejudice Lab, [Jessica] Nordell speaks with Evelyn R. Carter, a social psychologist at UCLA, who tells her that “people in the majority and the minority often see two different realities” based on what they do and do not notice. For example, “white people…might only hear a racist remark, while people of color might register subtler actions, like someone scooting away slightly on the bus.”

  • Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.

  • I thought about how it’s possible to move to a place without caring about who or what is already there (or what was there before), interested in the neighborhood only insofar as it allows one to maintain your existing or ideal lifestyle and social ties.

  • Compared to the algorithms that recommend friends to us based on instrumental qualities—things we like, things we’ve bought, friends in common—geographical proximity is different, placing us near people who we have no “obvious” instrumental reason to care about, who are neither family nor friends (nor, sometimes, even potential friends).

  • …when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me.

  • …I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege…if we don’t expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in an “I-It” world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we’re less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe—those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.

  • Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new into the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g. ecosystems) frames as construction (e.g. of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if were sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.

  • …a Japanese farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka experienced this Copernican shift when he invented what he called “do-nothing farming”. Inspired by the productivity of an abandoned lot that he saw filled with grasses and weeds, Fukuoka figured out a method of farming that made use of existing relationships in the land. Instead of flooding fields and sowing rice in the spring, he scattered the seeds directly on the ground in the fall, as they would have fallen naturally. In place of conventional fertilizer, he grew a cover of green clover, and threw the leftover stalks back on top when he was done. Fukuoka’s method required less labor, no machines, and no chemicals, but it took him decades to perfect and required extremely close attention. If everything was done at precisely the right time, the reward was unmistakable: not only was Fukuoka’s farm more productive and sustainable than neighboring farms, his method was able to remediate poor soils after a few seasons, creating farmable land on rocky outcrops and other inhospitable areas.