Our long legacy of slackers

Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America by Tom Lutz.

KAI RYSSDAL: Senators and members of the House of Representatives disclosed their personal finances today. And, as it turns out, no, they're not very representative. In fact, only a few lawmakers said their congressional salary is their primary source of income. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist earned millions of dollars in interest alone. Hillary Clinton has $50 million in the bank. So why do these people work? When they could be, you know, slacking off? Tom Lutz's new book, "Doing Nothing," is about those who work and those who choose not to. Mister Lutz, are you a slacker, lying on the couch all day?


TOM LUTZ: It was actually not me, it was my son lying on the couch. He moved into my house when he was 18 and started to just lay on the couch day in and day out. I found that it made me completely furious. I just was enraged by it. So I was surprised by my own emotional reaction to seeing my son doing something that I'd done a million times. That I'd watched him do a million times. So, I wanted to understand my own emotional reaction to his slackerdom.

RYSSDAL: We should probably start with the term, though. I mean, how do you define being a slacker?

LUTZ: Well, slacker, as a term, originates in World War I as a term for "draft dodger." But it's not until the 1980s that slacker becomes the common term for somebody who has a principled aversion to work.

RYSSDAL: As opposed to the unprincipled aversion . . .

LUTZ: Exactly. . . . As opposed to the purely lazy.

RYSSDAL: We can go back even farther in the history of this country and find some really prime examples of people who specialized at doing nothing. Ben Franklin is one of your key examples.

LUTZ: Well, Ben Franklin in America and Samuel Johnson in England are the two people I start out with. Franklin is a guy who we associate with the work ethic. He's got his famous schedule which he charts out what he's going to do hour by hour, day by day. And Samuel Johnson is the guy who signed himself, in his essays, as the idler. In fact, Johnson was constantly beset by guilt over his sloth. And Franklin, on the other hand, is a guy who just, as soon as he could, retired. He retired at the age of 42. He loved to take air baths, which meant taking all of his clothes off, laying with the windows open for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. John Adams said the only thing he's not late for is lunch.

RYSSDAL: So, I have the book here, and it is 320-something pages long of text. And you have, in a book on doing nothing, 34 pages of bibliography and notes. This was not a do-nothing kind of project.

LUTZ: No, I feel this book very strongly, in part, because I do work way too much.

RYSSDAL: You're a workaholic, you think?

LUTZ: I'm a bit of a workaholic. When I get going, I can sit at the computer, y'know, 16-17 hours and then wake up in the middle of the night and go back down and write a couple of paragraphs.

RYSSDAL: You talk, actually, about writers and how you're never comfortable with the time off that you need to be writing. But you're never happy working, so you can't write.

LUTZ: Yeah, writers have a particular problem with slacking, partly because we never looked like we're working.

RYSSDAL: Y'know, they say the same thing about radio journalists . . .

LUTZ: Of course! . . . Well, actually, it's a problem for all professionals who have control over their own time, [they] are faced with that issue 10-20 times a day. Y'know, "How am I going to spend the next hour?" We have to read to get ready to write. We have to kind of constantly be doing research. That research can slide off into reading the New York Times, which can slide off to reading Salon, which can slide off reading whatever . . .

RYSSDAL: Take your pick, sure.

LUTZ: Yeah, and since a lot of us watch culture for a living, watching "The Sopranos" is probably an important part of our job. We need to watch it. We need to be up with that. And the NBA Finals? .. .

RYSSDAL: Absolutely.

LUTZ: I think so. But, y'know, we have this sort of slacker crisis on a regular basis simply because of the nature of our work.

RYSSDAL: Before I let you go, I want to have read the very last paragraph in this book.

LUTZ: OK . . . Right now, I'd rather stop and rest. Do nothing for a while. I know that people have said that doing nothing is the hardest thing in the world to do. But I feel that now, after the work of making this book, I'm ready for the challenge. I'm ready to get off the treadmill to face the slow, beautiful emptiness and say, "Yes, this too is good."

RYSSDAL: The latest book from Tom Lutz is called, "Doing Nothing." Mr. Lutz, thanks for your time.

LUTZ: I'm glad to be here. Thanks.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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