Wasting Time

"In Praise of Wasting Time" by Alan Lightman

IN PRAISE OF WASTING TIME. By Alan Lightman. Simon & Schuster. 128 pages. $17.

Creative indolence? Not exactly.

When the Italians coined the phrase dolce far niente, how sweet to do nothing, they were definitely on to something. In our age of rapid, fragmented, time-driven lifestyles, compounded by internet, social media and smartphone information overload, the virtues of play, solitude and contemplation almost seem quaint.

In his gentle manifesto “In Praise of Wasting Time,” Alan Lightman stands the Protestant ethic on its ear and argues for a little downtime. A lot would be better. It is not abhorrent to “waste” time if it is invested in our sanity and our more free-wheeling creative impulses.

The wired world has its own virtues but can take a significant toll on our psyches, says Lightman, a distinguished physicist, novelist, essayist and professor of the humanities at MIT. Where, he asks, is the space for reflection, for processing all the input, for the vital pursuit of “free grazing of the imagination”?

The digital distractions of “the Grid” can be countered by allowing our minds to “wander and roam without particular purpose.” Learning when to unplug is no less a skill than organization or focus.

It can be as simple a thing as a stroll on the beach, a coffee break with friends or — gad! — sitting quietly with one's own thoughts, anything that isn’t goal-directed (unless the goal is relaxation and recharging).

Lightman, whose previous book was “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” admits he is not immune to the pull of the Grid, but offers common-sense advice on how to disengage without losing its benefits.

We can employ our various technologies in a way that devours all of our free time, or we can pause to think more carefully about what we're doing, and what values we prefer to embrace.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a freelance writer and editor in Charleston.