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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Dissenting from the Work Ethic BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America By Tom Lutz Farrar, Straus & Giroux 384 pages, $25 f a university is an intellectual banquet, four years hardly suffice to nibble a tray of tapas. Yet, anxious to improve institutional efficiency, academic administrators are taking extraordinary measures to ensure that seniors graduate. At the University of Georgia, matriculants malingering into a fifth year can now expect to lose parking privileges and access to football tickets. Millions believe that the shortest distance between adolescence and affluence is the diploma line at college graduation, and few would wish that it were any longer. A friend of mine did, and he deliberately kept some incompletes on his transcript to delay commencement. Dubbing himself “the oldest living undergraduate,” he postponed into his late 30s a return to the family business in a corner of the South that lacked the rich array of concerts, plays, exhibitions, films, and even classes in Berkeley. Other slacker capitals include Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Boulder, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Iowa City, Madison, and Austinall municipalities where dawdling is endemic. Author Tom Lutz was able to evade expulsion from collegiate Eden by enlisting in the professoriate. He spent some of his youth living on a commune and smoking pot, and he begins Doing Nothing, a fascinating and sedulous study of antipathies to work, by reflecting on the ambiguities of his own situation. “I am convinced, and not without good evidence,” he says, “that I am astoundingly lazy.” For good evidence, Lutz, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, notes that he squanders innumerable hours on TV, movies, and books. Yet as a scholar of contemporary culture, he also rationalizes that what some deride as goofing off is really toil for him: “And so my life of sloth blends imperceptibly into my pathological flip side, my workaholism, and this is the odd thing: I can just as easily argue and believe that I work, not too little, but entirely too much:’ In contrast to salaried drones, Lutz luxuriates in the freedom to do what he wants when he wants, but he also finds himself laboring late into the night on research and writing. “We are all lazy imposters,” he says about his kind, “and we are all workaholic slaves. We work way too hard and not nearly enough?’ A persistent theme throughout Lutz’s book is that American culture has been riven and driven by a tension between the work ethic and an aversion to exertion. Doing Nothing traces a history of ambivalence toward indolence. Lutz acknowledges the 19th-century French tradition of flaneurs, those, like Baudelaire, who made an art of sauntering along the streets of Paris, and he salutes Goethe’s feckless Werther as “the founding German slacker:’ He notes that Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, who spends much of his eponymous novel in bed, “is a slacker on a grand scale,” and he analyzes the freetahs who hang out in Tokyo’s Golden Gai neighborhood, “Japan’s slacker mecca:’ However, choosing to focus on American idlers, he never mentions Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov or Feodor Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. The name of Marcel Proust, who, horizontal for a decade in a cork-lined bedroom, constructed a seven-volume masterpiece, is not dropped once in Lutz’s chronicle of eminent dropouts. Though dolce far nienteto do sweet nothingis as Italian as Chianti, Lutz’s detailed study of American slackers has nothing to do with it. “Slacker” was first used in its contemporary sense in 1898, and while tracking its evolution out of idlers, loungers, strikers, and other dis senters from the common hustle, Lutz is most intent on documenting the last 50 years as the Golden Age of willful sloth. Crediting Samuel Johnson, who founded The Idler magazine in 1758, as “the world’s first slacker,” Lutz is not much interested in indolence earlier than when New England colonists stopped feeling bound to pay taxes on tea. So he misses the opportunity to examine the biblical legacy of the Fall, which condemned the human race to live by the sweat of its brow. The Prodigal Son, who dropped out of the family business \(but was later restored flakiness long before “Kicked Out,” the ABC reality show “in which a twentysomething jobless moocher is booted followed by a camera crew as he tries to live for ten days on his own:’ The preeminent slacker of ancient Greece has to be Odysseus, who after 10 years hanging with the warring dudes in windy Troy, spent 10 more years bopping around the wine-dark seas before returning to his kingdom and his wife. Lutz notes that the American colonies served as a haven both for Britain’s ne’erdo-wells and its most pious proponents of God’s work and good works. He might have found a similar counterpoint between Spanish vagabonds who sailed west in quest of easy gold and the zealous missionaries and empire-builders they exasperated. But he begins his detailed history in the 18th century with Benjamin Franklin, the creator of Silence Dogood and the dispenser of sober advice about frugality and industriousness. Yet examining the wit that undercuts Franklin’s received wisdom as well as the Philadelphia dilettante’s own relaxed behavior, Lutz concludes that “The famous Franklinian work ethic is at its heart a bit of a sham:’ Throughout the book, Lutz finds humor in portraits of those who pursue and those who evade labor. It is necessary to understand the grind in 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 16, 2006