Although there are very few ways I can identify with Bill Gates, I do like the fact that he periodically recommends books we should be reading. Unlike those Oprah-like book lists, the ones offered by Gates are generally nonfiction titles designed to stimulate our minds and widen our horizons. So, this week I will be offering a book for your consideration, if you ever get around to reading it, that is. You see, this book is about the undervalued art of procrastination. Of course, since I have never procrastinated when it comes to writing this column, I find it hard to relate to this topic. But I will try my best to see what this is all about.
Andrew Santella has written a delightful and very insightful book, SOON: AN OVERDUE HISTORY OF PROCRASTINATION, FROM LEONARDO AND DARWIN TO YOU AND ME (Dey St., 2018). At times serious, and at times humorous, Santella’s book covers a lot of ground and should provoke many discussion about procrastination for a long time. I do hope you will eventually get around to reading it. Although I bought the book in March, it occupied a space in the back seat of my car until a couple of weeks ago. I am glad I didn’t procrastinate longer before finishing it.
I find it heartening that Santella includes such cultural icons as Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Frederick Taylor, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg among those who were known for their procrastination. Wait a minute–who in the heck is this Lichtenberg fellow? I had never heard of him either until I read this book, and I am very glad I now know who he is. Turns out he was one of the outstanding intellectual lights of Enlightenment Europe, responsible for many discoveries and a nifty little volume of his private aphorisms, “The Waste Books.” In addition to his many accomplishments, he was also a champion procrastinator. His aphorisms were never meant to be published, but I am glad they were. Here we have little gems like “He had outgrown his library as one outgrows a waistcoat. Libraries can in general be too narrow or too wide for the soul,” “The monks at Lodeve, in Gascony, sanctified a mouse who had eaten a consecrated wafer,” “It is necessary for a writer to go out into the world, not so much to observe many situations as to get into many situations himself,” and “The book which most deserved to be banned would be a catalog of banned books.” And there are hundreds more where these came from. If nothing else, I am indebted to Santella for recommending “The Waste Books,” which is now a treasured addition to my much-too-large library.
We should acknowledge that procrastination can be an undesirable activity, but we should also be open to considering the positive attributes of putting things off. A good example is one of the book’s best chapters, “A Brief History Of The To-Do List,” that makes the perfectly logical argument that by never completing our list, we add more time to our lives. There is something so final about completing a to-list, as if by completing it we put a period to our lives. So, the longer we put some of the items off we more time we have to do other things. As Santella says, “As long as I have things to do before me, preferably an infinitely unrealizable series of things, there is no limit to how long I can continue to put them off. What could be more discouraging than crossing off the last item on the last to-do list? I want the lists to go on forever–and me, too, if possible.” An interesting idea to contemplate, don’t you think?
Another particularly thought-provoking section of Santella’s book is about two icons from our childhoods–Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. Think about this–”there was,” as Santella recalls, “something heartbreaking about the idea of a pursuit that never quite ends, a dream never quite realized, an undertaking that can never be completed. . . .I guess this is what makes Wile E. Coyote a romantic hero, in addition to a complete idiot.” These two arch-rivals personify the paradoxes of procrastination. By continually pursuing our goal while always failing to achieve it, we realize the perils and pleasures of procrastination.
And consider this–that procrastination is also a form of time travel, and “an attempt to manipulate time by transferring activities from the concrete present to an abstract future.” We have so little control over time, and procrastination gives us at least the illusion of controlling it. We are, after all, free to put certain things off until the future. This might be the only real control we have over time. I know this sounds pretty deep, but that is one of the joys of Santella’s book–the way it weaves in and out from the serious to the frivolous. In his hands, procrastination becomes both an activity to be avoided and a benefit to be pursued.
We should close this consideration of procrastination by consulting Johnny Cash’s very practical to-do list. This ten-point list includes such goals as “Not Smoke,” “Kiss June,” “Not Kiss anyone else,” “Cough,” “Pee,” “Eat,” “Not eat too much,” “Worry,” “Go See Mama,” and “Practice Piano.” It would be difficult to find a better list, and one that defies procrastination. As Santella states, “Worry can never really be crossed off a list of things to do. It is a meta-ambition, an ambition entirely about itself and therefore one that can never be realized, because even having had it on one’s list is cause for worry. It’s dizzying, if you think about it long enough.” So, does this mean we should add “Worry” to all our to-do lists? Maybe so.
As I advised earwlier, please don’t put off reading Santella’s book. It is a gem, and a very brief one at that–just a little under two hundred pages. Why would you want to procrastinate over something like that?
See you next week–I have already put next week’s column on my To-Do list.