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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

The Art of the Wasted Day

And what is that—"my life"? Fifty years—more—and "the life of the mind," lolling under the beechnut, has long since morphed into a scrum of tasks jittering down the day.

Life conceived—and lived—as a to-do list. This is the problem. I sense I'm not alone. Fretful, earnest, ambitious strivers—we take no comfort in existence unfurling easefully as God intended (my mother speaking, a middling midwesterner who knew how to let things unfold without rush, her head wreathed with vagueness, the smoke of her cig circling upward).

For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done. It explains—and solves—nothing to call this workaholism.

Whatever happened to that Roman concept, first encountered in Intermediate Latin—otium cum dignitate, honorable leisure? The peace that passeth understanding that the classical world held as its ideal, the ease I'd touched under the beechnut tree, not knowing it would disappear, fade, elude me when the time came to stop throwing myself on the grass and looking up at the passing clouds. Never mind the necessity of a slave class to keep the otium basking on the secluded hillside villa portico under its shaded grape arbor. Still, where is the ideal at least, if not the way of life?

And what about Montaigne in his tower, retiring from public life to muse about how to die—or was it how to live? Whichever. Put that on the list: Read Montaigne.

So many books I keep meaning to read. I move the titles from one to-do list to another. I don't bother listing Proust anymore. I've read the opening pages about the madeleine cookie soaked in linden flower tea so many times, I've come to think of In Search of Lost Time as a short lyric. I get the picture, if not the story. I have time for vignettes, but not for narrative arcs. I start a novel, but keep breaking off to check my iPhone. I-Phone indeed—the busyness of me myself and I.

I've already read enough Montaigne (I've even taught him—The Art of the Personal Essay, Eng 5610) to know I'd like to waste my life the way he did, taking up one conundrum after another, plucked out of idiosyncratic curiosity, how he wrote his way around a subject for a while, dropped it, picked up another—On Cannibals, On Experience, on this, on that.

He called them essays, but he didn't mean a freshman theme. He used the word to show he wasn't a professional literary man, that he was just tossing off unbidden thoughts for his own interest. Accidentally, he invented a literary genre.

The one I practice.

Yet, even before the essays, before my "work," I keep composing to-do lists. My most recent:

Return overdue books
Mammo appt
Mustard, garlic, milk (skim), bananas Date of Thanksgiving this year?
Letters of rec: Greg, Jeff, Susan ... who else???
Blurbs (3—actually read the books to the end)
Flowers to GK (mother's death—or was it father ... ask Ellen)
Ants in kitchen. Traps? Poison? Hardware store?
Fish oil (helps against aging—Sue)
Overcoats to Goodwill
Czech phrase book for G (leaves Monday)
Memoir ms. from Montreal paralytic (bottom right pile)—READ/RESPOND
Furnace inspection (ticking sound)
Rose wilt (ask Joan? Judith?)
Check to Refugee Sanctuary (how much?)
Geraniums and sprengeri fern for the graves
Dish soap
Dog food

This organization (or attempt at organization) is meant to sweep away all the dumb tasks of the day so that Real Life can be lived. Real Life? What comes after dog food?

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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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