In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

4.30pm yesterday Start reading page one.

4.31pm Tablet makes noise. Stop to check email.

4.35pm Continue reading page one.

4.36pm Check phone, may be a test message.

Well, it would be easy enough, evidently, for most people’s diary of reading this book to go like that. But I, and most people who are important to me, aren’t like that. We hardly ever turn on our phones, if we do, we forget that they are on, get the text message days later. Don’t have smart phones.

I suspect Alan Lightman will never have the right audience. People like me don’t live in the way he rues. The people who might get something out of it aren’t going to. In fact, he pretty much concedes that it’s a do as I say, not as I do book. He did get a smart phone, later than other people, and was addicted within days.

One of the things I love about having a proper computer, with a proper screen, is that it’s in its proper place. It isn’t part of me. It’s part of the room it sits in. Very occasionally it goes on a trip and reappears in another part of the world, part of another room. Never part of me. Going to my computer is a conscious act and this keeps addiction to a minimum. When I do go through periods of sitting there, ‘wasting time’ it’s for a purpose, pretty much that which is, after all, the message of the book. There are some things one can look at in a sort of Zen way, if you like, whilst sitting on a computer, whilst one’s brain is in the background, figuring something out. It can be calming, it can be a way of pushing stress away. I collect on Pinterest pictures of green. Perhaps for a person living in the middle of a European cityscape with no chance to take the daily meandering rural walks as a child Lightman wistfully refers to, these take the place. I hope they aren’t just an addiction.

But I spend substantial periods away from my computer too. Lightman doesn’t talk about cooking, but much of the ‘drudgery’ involved is mindless, exactly the sort of time one’s mind can transport itself. Washing up, chopping, stirring. One of the reasons I resist using machines to do the work of chopping is that it would take away that time, it would replace it with ugly noise and forced concentration. Lightman also doesn’t mention knitting, the Zen of nice white women who are wealthy enough to do knitting for the process without concern for the time taken. A privilege we have, that our mothers didn’t, who knitted furiously to get that jumper we needed ready for the moment.

I walk everywhere, unplugged. There was a period in my life when I listened to music while walking, but I seem to have left that long ago. I have never driven so the anger and stress of that appallingly wasted time has never been part of my life. On public transport I read. Or stare out the window. Or knit. Contemplate.

Time – of course it’s our enemy in the end. We will run out of it. But on a day to day basis it is not my enemy, it has little to do with my life. When walking, if presented with the shorter path which has the pollution (in every respect, especially noise) of motors or the peace of the pedestrian path, the latter is taken almost every time.

There is nothing special about any of this, they are choices we all make. Many choose to be plugged in so that they don’t hear the trees as they walk along the lake. Many choose to take a photo of their surrounds, rather than look at them. Many choose to evaluate their lives through the competition of Facebook. In the case of time, I’ve often been accused of having the time to spare, to for example, cook properly. But I make that choice. The person accusing me of it spends a lot of time watching football on TV. They don’t see the choice as they cook indifferent meals for their children, butchershop marinated meat, supermarket chopped vegetables. On the one hand, I suppose it is something I give people, cooking properly for them. On the other, for much of the process I get the possibility of the sort of time Lightman says he wants, but can’t give himself. Not really. He doesn’t even convince himself properly, let alone the rest of us.

He says nothing we didn’t already know in this book, perhaps he says some of it a little better, being the nice writer and thinker that he is. But….it’s a TED talk. Sigh. Converted into a little book (because it isn’t long enough to sustain a normal sized book) padded out with pictures which I found irrelevant and irritating. I would have preferred more words for my money, if I’d been the sort of person to buy such a book. Which I’m not.

The book itself is part of a series, the TED talk capitalist drive at work. I guess people get suckered into buying the lot. I don’t see it rising above the morass of that whole industry.

I don’t see why the book and the talk couldn’t have just said this:




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