The Bookworm: Lost arts of wasting time and making things

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“In Praise of Wasting Time”

  • By Alan Lightman
  • c. 2018, TED Books
  • $16.99, $22.99 Canada; 106 pages

When was your last vacation? Think hard. When was the last time you turned off your phone for more than three hours, left your laptop at work, or put your briefcase in a closet for a week? If the answer starts with the word “Nineteen,” then read on: “In Praise of Wasting Time” by Alan Lightman is needed, pronto.

“In Praise of Wasting Time” author Alan Lightman.

Tucked in a far-away corner of Cambodia, the people of the village of Tramung Chrum live with no running water or electricity, no TV, internet, or technology. Alan Lightman visited there recently and, when he discovered that village women ride their bikes every morning to a village 10 miles away, he asked how long the ride took.

One woman was baffled, saying that it hadn’t occurred to her to even notice. Her answer made Lightman think about his childhood, aimless treks through wooded areas near his home and “careless, wasteful hours” spent at a nearby pond, unencumbered by the “weight of life.” Kids today don’t have that kind of leisure. Neither do adults, much to our collective detriment because, as psychologists know, we need “downtime” to regenerate and create.

And yet – oh, the guilt, when we disconnect! It even has a name: “FOMO,” or the “Fear of Missing Out.” It affects most smart-phone-owning adults and it shortens our attention spans; teens often “find it nearly impossible to be alone” because of that 24/7 connection they’ve never not had.

“In Praise of Wasting Time” by Alan Lightman.

Part of the solution, says Lightman, is to utilize “something called ‘divergent thinking’: the ability to explore … a problem in a spontaneous and non-orderly manner,” that mind-wandering, let-your-subconscious-chew-on-it thinking that “lollygags.” It’s that kind of problem-solving that works best when you’re thinking about something else.

Then, he says, let yourself get stuck; in fact, “we should welcome” it. Take a chance to mind-wander, to mosey along memories without a plan. See how long you can sit in a room, alone, without checking your email. And learn to embrace downtime: it’s the best way “to nourish the Self” and gain “necessary inner stability.”

Right about now, you may be squirming. To read “Don’t Work” in a business book seems like madness, but hold up: “In Praise of Wasting Time” could have the work-advice you need.

In the same unhurried, frittering way that his memories fall, author Alan Lightman gives readers ample reason to take that vacation, to put away cellies, and seize the weekend. This is an urgent call to action that feels like a lazy summer day: Lightman seems in no hurry to offer stories to boost his TED talk, making readers lean in to the ideas which he espouses. The whole narrative itself is relaxing, and the research he uses hammers the point home with a velvet-peened tool: there’s no drama or demand to this book, but it’s compelling nonetheless.

So turn off your phone this weekend, for heaven’s sake. Sit outside and watch the world go by. Or get other ideas from this book, because reading “In Praise of Wasting Time” is no waste at all.

 “Now Make This”

  • Curated by Thomas Bärnthaler
  • c. 2018, Phaidon
  • $19.99, $24.95 Canada; 122 pages

The summer stretches out ahead of you. Ach, but you’re already just a little bit bored. Seriously, you can only play so many video games, ride your bike so many hours, swim so many laps. So what do you do when you’ve got time on your hands? With “Now Make This,” curated by Thomas Bärnthaler, you’ll never wonder again.

Everything you’ll touch this summer was made by somebody: your bed, your game controller, your bike, and your swimsuit. The makers of each of those products were kids once and if they can do it, why can’t you make something cool, too? With this book, you can, using things you’ll find around the house or garage. Some of the projects will need a grown-up’s help but you might not need money. Best of all, your creativity can go wild because “sometimes what you might think is a mistake can actually make your project even better!”

“Now Make This,” curated by Thomas Bärnthaler.

If you’re going with your family on a great vacation this year, for instance, you’re going to need a “Jar in a Jar” from designer Sam Hecht. It will require a grown-up’s help to make, but it won’t cost much and it’ll help you keep track of those tiny souvenirs you’ll bring home.

Are you babysitting this summer? If you are, you’ll be in high demand when you bring sock puppets (from designer Jaime Hayon) and “cut & fold masks” (from matali crasset) with you. Both of these things are easy-to-make yourself, and they’ll entertain little sibs and customer’s kids alike. You might also want to invest in some colored construction paper, too: lots of projects in this book use it.

No doubt, you’re going to need a gift for someone this summer and a balancing sculpture from Ladies & Gentlemen Studio will make a great gift that you make yourself. A fishnet lamp from Neri&Hu requires the help of an adult to make, but it’ll be so cool that you’ll want one, too. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, make a toilet paper wall for yourself, or a playhouse for your little sister.

“Who knows,” says Bärnthaler, “maybe you’ll grow up to be a designer one day!”

Remember making your own fun out of imagination, odds and ends, and junk?  Your child will have those kinds of memories, too, when you’ve got “Now Make This” around the house this school-break.

Of course, you’ll know by paging through it that this is a launching-point for inspiration. “Curator” Thomas Bärnthaler says in his introduction that the 24 projects in this book shouldn’t be exactly copied. That gives kids permission to hone their imaginations while DIY-ing, templates help for accuracy, and the cost-and-time indications give them a realistic idea of what they’re in for. But beware: some projects will absolutely require your help, especially those with power-tool-as-ingredient.

Keep that in mind and have that discussion with your 10-to-14-year-old when you bring home this book. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your child because “Now Make This” will really stretch his creativity this summer.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.