A few weeks back, I was antsy in a way that I couldn’t explain. My head was swimming from a bunch of weeks on the road for work, which turned into both too much and not enough time with people. I was tired no matter how much I slept. Inside all the time. Sucked into the cycle of: delete Instagram, then redownload Instagram and numb brain with other people’s stories of their shiny lives, feel shitty (repeat forever?).
So one Saturday afternoon back home, annoyed with myself and unwilling to submit anyone else to my attitude, I took off for the woods alone. Wine can, sandwich, warm layer, book. South down the Pacific Crest Trail toward a lake I was pretty sure was pretty. At the lake, I set up my tent and shook out my sleeping bag, then sat on a log near the muddy shore and cracked open the can and the book.
Before I even made it through the introduction, I realized I’d chosen well. Sometimes, I think, books show up in your life at exactly the right time.
Despite its prescriptive title, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing ($26, Melville House) is not a self-help book. It’s critical theory about the attention economy and how easy it is to be pulled away from reality by the constant churn of the internet and social media, which are specifically designed to grab at our most base instincts and keep us hitting refresh forever. It’s about how the digital world is distracting us from the actual world and what we lose when we stop paying attention.
None of this is new, exactly, but Odell’s biggest counter to those issues is the natural world: spending time outside observing, so you know exactly what your local ecology looks like, how it connects, and how it changes over time. Odell, who grew up in Cupertino, California, and now lives in Oakland, meanders (literally and literarily) through the wilds of the Bay Area. She weaves stories of the birds in her neighborhood and time in her local rose garden with the growth of Silicon Valley and the erosion of small towns and natural areas.
Odell isn’t the only one trying to figure out the morass of technology and how it chips away at our ability to be present. If you want to cut all the way back on your habit, Mark Boyle’s The Way Home ($25, Oneworld Publications) is a look at full rejection. Boyle, whose previous book, The Moneyless Man, was about freeing himself from cash, started homesteading without technology in rural Ireland in 2016. He’s far from the first man to set out for the woods alone to see if he can hack it, and the book scratches those familiar Thoreauvian itches, but he’s appealingly clear about when it doesn’t work—the ways it can stress a relationship, for instance—and it’s a good lesson on the checks and balances of modernity.
If you’re thinking about what you actually get when you cut out all the distractions, Jane Brox traces the concept of quiet and how we get it—from the pain of prison isolation to the pleasure of Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s time in the hinterlands—in Silence ($27, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She looks at what noise does to us spiritually and physically, how we’ve commodified sounds, and what we lose at either end of the register. Like Odell, she doesn’t try to sort silence into good or bad, but she makes a well-defined case for paying attention to the elements around us that shape our days.
If you do want something a little more self-helpy and prescriptive, computer-science professor Cal Newport, who made a career out of life-hacking technology, recently published Digital Minimalism ($26, Portfolio). It’s his guide to cutting back to just the essential technology. The value of the book rides on his critical analysis and the ways his computer-science brain picks apart technology as a tool instead of glorifying it. His approach: get rid of all of it, then intentionally add back the things that actually serve you.
It’s hard to say where the tipping point of technology takeover might be, or if we’ve already blown way past it, but all of these books have the same conclusion: the best we can do is slow down and be present. We must pay attention to the landscape around us and how it’s changing, because we impact it—even if we’re zoned out—and it changes us, too.
Rain rolled in over the lake as I slept, and in the morning, I lay in the tent with How to Do Nothing, listening for a break in the storm. For the first time in a long time, I did not anxiously check my phone or internally berate myself for not getting up earlier. I just stayed.
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