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BOOK REVIEW: Concept of ‘Doing Nothing’ Seems to be Anachronistic in Today’s Workaholic World, But Author Tom Lutz Says It’s the Other Side of Work Ethic Coin

Posted by kinchendavid on September 28, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – Any author who includes references to the Statler Brothers (“Flowers on the Wall”) and Max Weber (“The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”) in his book is on track to create something worth reading. That’s the case with Tom Lutz and his latest book “Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 363 pages, bibliography, index, $25).

Popular music and sociological treatises like Weber’s are just a few of the references offered up by Lutz, a Southern California English professor and self-confessed former slacker, loafer and commune dweller. He’s also the father of 18-year-old Cody Lutz, whose proclivities for loafing alarmed a man who spent a decade — before attending college — wandering hither and yon.

I have to accuse Lutz of what we in the journalism business call “burying the lede” – if the “lede” or thesis of the story is that societies that are among the most workaholic – Lutz cites Japan and the U.S. – also produce a rich culture of slackers and loafers. A brief detour from the American aspect of slacking and loafing takes place when Lutz visits (Page 310 ff) Tokyo’s Golden Gai slacker central. Yin and yang, work ethic and slacker ethic. Can’t have one without the other, it appears.

By the way, Lutz points out that the word “workaholic” was coined by Wayne E. Oates in 1968, but became widespread upon the 1971 publication of the South Carolinian’s best-selling “Confessions of a Workaholic.” Born into a poor family in 1917, Oates wrote 47 books, earned a master’s and a Ph.D. and worked full-time as a pastor and later as a college professor. He died in 1999.

The way Oates describes this condition – which I thought afflicts me and many other journalists, writers and editors – sounds like a form of addiction. Workaholics (Page 275) are people who cannot stop working, who need larger and larger doses to get by (Lutz paraphrasing here) and (leading into an Oates quote) have “forced themselves into exhaustion, depression, cardiovascular disorders, excessive eating in order to maintain energy, and all manners of imbalances of the human life.”

Wow! Come to think of it, if that describes workaholism, I guess I’m not a true workaholic. I suffer from none of the conditions described, with the possible exception of exhaustion after a day of physical labor. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy my work so much I just want to do it. I “prefer to do it,” in contrast to Herman Melville’s famous “Bartleby the Scrivener” whose mantra is “I prefer not to” when asked to do a particular job in the office where he ostensibly works.

Lutz’s book is crammed to the rafters with references to literary figures – including Bartleby – from Tom Sawyer, a classic slacker who manages to get others to do his work, to Rip Van Winkle, taking that famous nap and waking up decades later. He also cites many sociological and historical works, all listed in the comprehensive bibliography.

Karl Marx and his father Hirschel Marx share book space with Groucho, Harpo and the rest of the Marx Brothers, making “Doing Nothing” a fascinating book indeed. I enjoy juxtapositions of this sort.

Lutz notes that famous loafers and slackers of the past and present were and are really industrious folks, closet workaholics, if you will. Beat icon Jack Kerouac worked in a variety of jobs while creating his novels; he even enlisted in three branches of the armed services in the space of a few days!

Film director Richard Linklater (born in Texas in 1960) is the man whose 1991 movie “Slacker” gave a name to a concept that has been around seemingly forever. I watched Linklater’s 1993 flick “Dazed and Confused” the other night and noted that the Matthew McConaughey character – slightly older than most of the high school students portrayed in the movie – is a classic slacker. “Dazed and Confused” can be compared to “American Graffiti” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” McConaughey also plays a slacker in Tom Dey’s “Failure to Launch” that came out earlier this year. His character in the upcoming “We Are Marshall” movie is anything but a slacker.

Linklater is no slacker, Lutz points out: He’s directing and writing constantly. I checked this out with the movie data base site and found this to be true with 17 films written and/or directed by the Houston native since the mid-1980s, including “The School of Rock,” “The Newton Boys,” and, most recently “A Scanner Darkly,” based on the Philip K. Dick story.

Last year I obtained a copy of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” book and actually read it, in the English translation. It was published in 1905 and last year was the centennial of the classic sociology work, which helped create the field of sociology itself. Essentially, the German academic argues that the settlement of America by Calvinist workaholics created the work ethic that is the hallmark of America. It drove the nation to succeed and also worked a lot of people too hard for their own taste. This is a vast simplification of Weber; get the book and read it for yourself – unless, of course, you “prefer not to!”

Lutz says our current president is a classic slacker, the kind of Chief Executive who interprets 24/7 as 24 hours a week, 7 months a year as his working schedule. George W. Bush probably was taken to the woodshed (figuratively, I hope) by his workaholic dad, former President George H.W. Bush, Lutz posits.

What about Cody Lutz, introduced in the beginning of the book, where we see him lounging on the sofa of his dad’s place, watching TV? According to his dad, Cody’s working 14 hours a day in the workaholic environment of Hollywood, in a city that has an undeserved reputation for being “laid back.” I lived there for 16 years and most Angelenos are anything but laid back; they have to work two or three jobs just to afford living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.fsgbooks.com

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