Glossaries: An Idle Pleasure

Surely, one must be nearly paralyzed with boredom to idly flip through the pages of a glossary. And yet, there's something strangely compelling about a compendium of definitions, especially those clustered around a specific subject. Last year, I reviewed the delightfully informative 'Isms and Ologies: All the Movements, Ideologies, and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World, by Arthur Goldwag. Now, across my desk comes the diminutive The Idler's Glossary, by Joshua Glenn* and Mark Kingwell (with nifty illustrations from the cartoon hero Seth). This little book explains -- nay, argues -- for the moral superiority (over work, slacking and even leisure time) of idleness.


Kingwell, in an introduction that quickly shifts in tone from erudite to evangelical, parses the meaning of idleness: First of all, idleness is not not working. That implies that work is the positive, and idleness is only its opposite.

Glenn, who provides the actual glossary of all things idle-related (for instance, "good-for-nothing," "loiter," "moocher"), defines the term thusly:

"Idleness [from the Old English word for "worthless, useless"] may look to the untrained eye like laziness, slacking, killing time. Unlike slacking, though, idling is not the opposite of working hard, but is instead a rare, hard-won mode in which your art is your work and your work is your art. See: FREE TIME, LEISURE, USELESSNESS"

Following Glenn's instructions, let's turn to the entry for "free time":

"Free time, in the sense of 'freedom to,' is electrifying and beautiful. But free time, in the sense of "freedom from," is merely restful and relaxing. Freedom-to time is what all idlers seek; it is a true state of leisure, in which actions are performed entirely for their own sake. Freedom-from time, on the other hand, is merely a vacation or a recess; i.e., it's a scheduled (and mandated) period during which we androidized humans can recharge our batteries."

Doesn't the idea of "freedom to" time fill you with longing?

* Glenn is a former colleague of my husband's, but I've never met him.

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 21, 2008; 7:08 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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"Freedom-to time" is a great phrase! As I stare at the stack of research essays waiting for me to grade them, I guess I want some "freedom-from" as well, but really it's the flip-side that sounds more enticing, and so many things I would love to indulge in -- right now kicking my heels up on the back porch and reading and re-reading old Ross Macdonald novels... for absolutely no reason whatsoever!

Posted by: Art Taylor | October 21, 2008 10:58 AM

Intrigued by the notion of "the moral superiority of idleness"!

Posted by: laurel, md | October 21, 2008 8:36 PM

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