Dr. Franklin looking genial

Dr. Franklin looking genial

Dr. Johnson looking cranky

Dr. Johnson looking cranky

I am learning a lot from Tom Lutz’s Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America. For instance, not being much of a fan of Jethro Tull the band, I never knew that Jethro Tull the person was (says Wikipedia)

an English agricultural pioneer who helped bring about the British Agricultural Revolution

or that (this is Lutz now):

Tull’s seed drill, first introduced in 1701, not only improved the germination rate and thus harvest yields but also inaugurated a long line of machine inventions and improvements.

These inventions and improvements, by enabling larger amounts of food to be grown by a smaller percentage of the population, had a great deal to do with the creation of slack as we know it today. There’s very little romance in a farmboy who sleeps late and fails to get his crops in; considerably more in the kind of urban idler who hangs around cafes writing poetry, or more likely talking about writing poetry.

The whole concept of the literature of slackerdom is an interesting one. The purest literary creations of the slothful cannot be found in any library or bookstore; they remained in the heads of their creators, who of course were too lazy to write them down. Therefore, what we do have by way of a written record is by definition compromised. Lutz writes quite a bit about Samuel (Dr.) Johnson, who in 1758 began a series of essays titled The Idler that sing the praises of indolence:

The Idler who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is in their reach, and think of every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired….

The Idler has no rivals or enemies. The man of business forgets him; the man of enterprise despises him; and though such as tread the same track of life fall commonly into jealousy and discord, Idlers are always found to associate in peace; and he who is famed for doing nothing, is glad to meet another as idle as himself.

Though, as Lutz points out, Dr. Johnson did not quite have the courage of his convictions:

For a man beset by melancholic indolence, Johnson accomplished an enormous amount. His Dictionary of the English Language (1755), with its 40,000 definitions and 115,000 quotations, took nine years…. Johnson also wrote critical biographies of fifty-two poets, wrote essays on (and edited) the complete plays of Shakespeare, and produced more than three hundred essays in the Rambler and Idler series, numerous poems, a novel (Rasselas [1759]) and other tales, prefaces, travel writing, sermons, satires, and parodies. He did voluminous political writing and reporting, kept diaries, and wrote countless letters. He was not, after all, a very good idler at all.

There’s a funny effect where those most eager to espouse laziness often turn out to be secret workaholics, while those who talk most about the importance of work sometimes are talking more than they’re working. Lutz compares and contrasts Dr. Johnson with Benjamin Franklin, noted for penning many aphorisms about the value of rising early and putting one’s nose to the grindstone. Franklin certainly accomplished a lot in his life, but appeared to have no compunction about taking plenty of Benjamin time; Lutz quotes this letter John Adams wrote when he joined the American delegation in Paris in 1778:

I found out that the business of our commission would never be done unless I did it… The life of Dr. Franklin was a scene of continual dissipation… It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as breakfast was over, a crowd of carriages came to his levee… some philosophers, academicians, and economists… but by far the greater part were women… He came home at all hours from nine to twelve o’clock at night.

There’s some Deep Truth in there about the people who argue loudest and longest on a subject, and how they’re really trying to convince themselves, because deep down inside they feel the opposite. But my battery is dying and the basketball game is about to start…so ta-ta for now.