Review: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

I know I'm late to the boat on this one. This book came out in 2019. It was one of Barack Obama's favorite books that year. I only just got around to finishing it. I don't think Jenny Odell will mind that I took this long. She seems to be okay with things that go slow.

She wisely opens the book with an old Daoist story about a useless tree. Its wood is so knotted, split, and crooked that it could not possibly be used to build anything. By being useless, it resists getting chopped down, becoming the oldest and strongest tree around.

That was the most memorable part of the book, and it plays well with the other anecdotes spread throughout. Odell resists simple instructions and admonitions by grounding each point in concrete stories, and complicating her conclusions wherever she can. Nevertheless, she has some clear and valuable messages to share.

One of those messages is that it's valuable to look backward as well as forward. Novelty is overrated. I don't hear this enough, living as I do in academia. In the academic world it goes unsaid that to be publishable (i.e. worthy of the time of an academic) an idea has to be new. This shows up in two old math cliches.

  • After finally completing a problem which took months or years to solve, the mathematician is distraught when they receive feedback from reviewer number 1: this problem was solved by Euler in 1775.

  • The student asks "why do we use this notation?", "why is this ambiguous case defined in this manner?". The teacher replies, "for historical reasons".

I invite you to imagine, if you will, an academic in any other discipline responding in this way. "Why do we call it Germany while the people there call it Deutschland?" Oh, for historical reasons.

This obsession with novelty is of course a false and dangerous one, since we are all indebted to the work and ideas of those who came before us. Without revisiting, renewing, and reinterpreting old ideas we risk losing them. There is value in learning old ways of thinking and rediscovering old techniques. When we are constantly told the opposite, it is good to hear this reaffirmed.

I won't try to summarize the book here. Instead, I will just recommend you read it yourself. It changed the way I think about some things, and made me feel a bit better about some of my weird, useless hobbies and interests.