How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Jenny Odell

Book cover

While superficially similar to “The World Beyond Your Head” by Matthew Crawford, a book that I really disliked, HTDN could not be more different. Dealing with the topics of distraction and the attention economy, this book is all mountain-eroding-water yin, where the other one is all world-mastering yang.

I knew I would like this book when my partner was reading it and recounted to me Odell’s story about the Old Survivor redwood in Oakland. I said, huh, that sounds a lot like a story from Zhuangzi. And she said, oh yeah, she mentioned that! (Funny story, we were on a trip to Berkeley when she was reading this, and I was reading “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang. We stopped into Books Inc. there, and they had a display shelf called “What Berkeley Is Reading.” The two books in the center: HTDN (non-fiction), Exhalation (fiction). So predictable!)

It’s difficult to say concisely why this is such an excellent book. I found it very densely packed with insight, in a way that is rare for a non-academic book. It never feels like Odell is padding out an essay-length idea to be book length, and while her prose is not difficult to read, I sometimes had to read slowly because there was really a lot to absorb. My partner observed that she has heard a number of podcast or radio interviews with Odell, and each one has focused on something totally different about the book, which is indicative of its richness.

Among other things, I appreciated reading Odell’s extended discussions of various art pieces and their relations to attention. I am not plugged into the art world at all, while Odell is a professional artist and teacher of art, so this was all new territory for me. But Odell does a great job of conveying insight in a way that was accessible to me. I also felt very compelled by her discussions of bioregionalism, and can confirm that the iNaturalist app (which I downloaded after reading about it in this book) is really fun and has enhanced my appreciation of nature. Perhaps my favorite vignette was about Community Memory, the first electronic bulletin board system, which was established in Berkeley in the early 1970s. I never knew anything about it before!

More than anything, this is a book with heart. Odell has such a distinctive and tender outlook on the world (e.g. the story of her ongoing relationship with the two crows that visit her balcony)–if you are not charmed by her, you probably have a heart of stone. And yet it deals with such weighty issues, including decolonization, collective action, and community. I rarely feel like I would like to re-read books, even ones I really liked, but I can well imagine reading this again!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars