It’s a long way from the Oracle at Delphi to the modern communicative agent that is the iPhone. Yet Patricia Hampl covers much of the distance between the two in her affecting and ingenious new book The Art of the Wasted Day. Part essay, part travelogue, part interrogative memoir, part mourning love letter, The Art of the Wasted Day touches on a head-spinning range of historical and literary phenomena, including masterpieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Marcel Proust; the Baltimore Catechism; the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the limitations of Skype; and the significance of the modern memoir craze. Yet Hampl dexterously turns all these topics into lenses bent on a central concern: the value of a certain kind of psychic space, which she refers to as “leisure.”
Reverie-friendly leisure is, of course, at odds with the multi-tasking, no-off-switch ethos of the current moment. Hampl also vividly remembers the chagrin she felt, as a Catholic schoolgirl, on finding “daydreaming” listed as a sin in her catechism. Such anti-woolgathering prejudice notwithstanding, The Art of the Wasted Day argues that leisure is a boon to the mind and soul. When we take time off from our ego-driven rush, the book suggests, we can observe and imagine, engage in activities that build up our empathy. The kind of careful noticing that leisure makes possible may even help us reconcile with the motley, transitory, and jarring aspects of existence. “The integrity of the eye, moving over chaos” is “repudiating chaos by the fact of its attention,” she writes. At one point, she goes so far as to posit that “the lost life of daydream” is the arena where “all the rest—wisdom, decency, generosity, compassion, joy, and plain honesty—are sequestered.”
An acclaimed author of poetry and prose (and a sometime contributor to Commonweal), Hampl sets out to explore the meaning of creative leisure by visiting the haunts of four historical figures. Michel de Montaigne wrote his groundbreaking, genre-launching Essais—Hampl has the audiobook on her iPhone—during years of relative seclusion at his family’s French chateau. Gregor Mendel made his pioneering discoveries in the field of genetics while living as a monk in what is now the Czech Republic; Hampl’s pilgrimage to his old stomping grounds allows to her visit Czech friends and revives her memory of learning about the 1968 invasion as a young journalist in Minnesota.