Excerpt from The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Art of the Wasted Day

by Patricia Hampl

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl X
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 288 pages
    Apr 2019, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Onward to the night, which is to say insomnia, cell phone on the bedside table, the mind drilling away with yet more frantic interior list-making. Don't forget! Remember to ... Have you ... Did you ... ?

Whole decades can go this way—and have—not just in domestic detail, but awash in the brackish flotsam of endeavor, failure and success, responsibility and reward. My work, as I say with foolish vanity. Deadlines piled upon deadlines. That devilishly apt word deadline, the heart seizing as if shot, hands wringing for a reprieve—a week, a day? But delivering. Always delivering. You can count on me. That, in fact, is the problem. I never learned to follow Nancy Reagan's one piece of good advice: Just Say No.

Even with the arch refusal to friend anybody or to tweet abstemiously in 140 characters from the baroque song sheet of my jammed mind, even so, the daydream life, that prairie of possibility cherished from childhood, and beyond that into my delicious time-wasting youth—all that has been junked up with ... with what? Reality? Life as it really is and must be for an adult?

Wasn't it Fitzgerald, St. Paul boy, first literary hero, who said bitterly toward the end of his life that "the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness"? By turns rhapsodic and vexed, he was more profoundly American in his ambition and his romance for the country—those boats against the current, the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night—than he-man Hemingway with his fishing and hunting, his safaris and wars.

Eventually, Fitzgerald was fed up with striving, with what he called "the bitch goddess of success." In the depths of the Depression (his own and America's) he wrote his "Crack-Up" essays when he couldn't bear the effort anymore—"my limitless capacity for toil." Another deadline-beset soul.

Another lifelong list-maker. He made his tragic hero into one too, the notebook found after poor George Wilson has shot Gatsby in his pool. The boyhood ambition outlined in his rigorous to-do list proves that Jimmy Gatz, a.k.a. Jay Gatsby, is the ultimate tragic American hero not because he was ruinously ambitious and something of a crook, but because he was an ardent self-improver:

Rise from bed ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... . . 6 a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling ... ... ... 6:15–6:30
Study electricity etc... ... ... ... ... ... ... .7:15–8:15
Work ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... . .8:30–4:40 p.m.
Baseball and sports ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 4:30–5:00
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it ... . 5:00–6:00
Study needed inventions ... ... ... ... ... ... 7:00–8:00
General Resolves: No wasting time at Shafters ... No more smoking or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save $5.00
[crossed out] $3.00 per week Be better to parents

Jimmy Gatz followed a long lineage from that original American list-maker, Ben Franklin, whose Autobiography lays out the day like a time card to be punched, his list of improvements and self-creating instructions a handmade noose he fitted around his own neck, dragging his life forward, always forward. Or upward.

This list-making of a self-improving sort is an American heritage from Franklin to Fitzgerald to us, the urgent organization of the day in the service of bettering oneself. Nothing like the cloudy drifting under the beechnut that still beckons (or haunts) after all these years. Up in the air, flying, higher, higher, dying into a panic attack. Up, up (Fitzgerald's first word, I read somewhere, was Up, inscribed by his mother in his baby book), the American urgency for uplift. Or that four- bit word—transcendence.

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Excerpt from The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, to be published on April 17, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Patricia Hampl.

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