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Curing Tedium

Bored of Hot Takes in a Burning World

A burned-out journalist searches for meaning at a sensory deprivation party and in Jenny Odell’s new book on reconceptualizing time.

A print of the famous painting of a man with an apple in front of his face lies amid the ruins of a burned house.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
A print of the painting “The Son of Man” by Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte lies amid the remains of a house destroyed by a wildfire near Athens, Greece.

Beneath my powder-pink blindfold, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a chilly afternoon in January, and I had just arrived at my first sensory deprivation party—ominously titled “Games People Play,” per the sparse Parti.ful invitation. I had a headache and preemptive skepticism about this Silicon Valley vibe invasion of downtown Brooklyn. But the experiment had already begun: Two sighted hosts rotated 30 or so sleep-masked guests through a living room, encouraging us to speak to strangers we couldn’t see.

Inevitably, it seemed, conversation turned to people’s jobs, and from there to either killer robots (an existential risk I don’t really buy into) or climate change (a threat so pressing I can hardly stand to discuss it anymore). When the hour was up, I removed the eyelash-cramping mask with a wave of relief. Other people seemed enthusiastic; they’d learned something, maybe, about themselves or the art of connection. When I asked the man next to me if he thought, after what we’d just been through, that meaningful human communication was really possible, he laughed riotously. “Yes.”

I said I wasn’t sure anymore—and that this creeping cynicism probably disqualified me from continuing to be a journalist.

This is the state in which I spent much of the winter: bereft of curiosity, once my constant companion. Maybe I’d burned too brightly; whatever happened, I was now burned out. Many people, including the man at the party, find this perspective totally alien. But I know others who intuitively understand my quiet plight—others who receive New York Times push notifications through a fog of déjà vu, or who have risked it all for “exciting” jobs only to end up circling another career cul-de-sac. “It sounds bad,” one friend said of the feeling over dinner, “but it’s like, I already had this idea, and mine was better.” More and more, tedium is a subject unto itself. A self-identified “boring” president. Endless sequels at the box office—and soporific awards shows. The fact that all the right words on climate change have already been said” but we must keep saying them, because things don’t seem to change.

So when I sat down with Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, the second book by multimedia artist turned millennial sage Jenny Odell, I was hardly surprised to see a long list of overfamiliar ideas: Time is not money. Capitalism’s profit-driven clock is not the only viable timescale. Leisure has value in and of itself. You know the drill. But for once, I wanted to keep reading. While the book never quite matches the novelty of her first, bestselling How to Do Nothing, it ultimately offers something just as valuable: time to think.

Much like the flower-bound How to Do Nothing, Saving Time feels more like performance art than library loan. Both texts unfold like a map of the author’s brain, an endless series of copy + paste + light commentary. Odell’s mode of existential collage is beloved by easygoing readers, while those who crave synthesis often end up enraged. Parul Sehgal, book critic for The New Yorker, summed up her experience reading Saving Time thusly:

Odell’s signal question is to ask whose time is being devalued. I began to respond in the margins, faintly at first, and then with despair. Whose time is being devalued? Mine, I wrote.

I can relate, as someone who has also thought deeply and written about changing notions of time in the twenty-first century. It seems obvious that Odell is shying away from some of Saving Times biggest questions.

While Odell writes in the introduction that she wrote the book to save her own life amid the despair of ecological catastrophe, she never seems quite confident enough to take the logical next step—analyzing the threat climate change poses to human conceptions of the future. Even within the assemblage of other books, anecdotes, and works of art Odell references, she fails to acknowledge some of the most compelling developments in the philosophy of time. One that comes to mind: political theorist Elizabeth F. Cohen’s efforts to articulate the way in which bureaucratic power steals time from the most vulnerable members of society through migration control, detention, and more.

These shortcomings cannot be overlooked. But if we return, for a moment, to the idea of textual performance art, they take on a new guise. For Odell’s target audience, the book itself—tedium, omissions, and all—is an unusually interrelational experience, in which both author and reader alter, and are altered by, the ideas as they unfold. In How to Do Nothing, which includes long passages on utopian fiction and meandering encounters with Oakland crows, the reader was often not doing much at all. In Saving Time, we are asked to spend time with Odell’s ideas, knowing that precious hours of our life are passing by and that time devoted to reading—at least for most Americans—cannot be commodified.

In any other era, such a book might be a real waste. Saving Time is neither particularly intellectually incisive nor especially beautifully written, the two conventional paths to excellence in nonfiction. But in an era when discourse is defined by the length of a tweet or a TikTok video, extended explorations of important ideas—and the ideas in Odell’s book are important—can offer something more important than novelty: room for reflection, even disagreement. When I read a tweet that says, “Time is not money,” I could at best be said to know something; when I have spent hours with various iterations of the message that “time is not money,” I have arguably something closer to a mini-deprogramming course. Through the very act of reading this deliberately inefficient book, I am now in the position to do something about it.

This therapeutic quality—the hallmark of the “self-help” category in which Odell technically publishes—makes writing or talking about Odell’s books difficult. The reader is prone to either excessively short recaps of what’s on the page or effusive, overflowing personal revelation that spans years of therapy and generations of inherited wisdom only tangentially related to the topic at hand. Further complicating the picture is the fact that the most powerful parts of the text will be different for everyone. One woman’s scales-falling moment is another woman’s itchy eye mask.

For this reader, one of the most meaningful passages in Saving Time came from an aside about the race to produce human-like artificial intelligence. Odell has always thrived at conceptualizing abstract technologies, and the recent public interest in DALL-E, ChatGPT, and related services has only served to amplify our confusion, fear, and excitement about these computational minds” and their potential. These machines, she writes, may accomplish incredible things, but they will never be able to simulate, say, 26 years of living and learning, because that much living and learning takes 26 years to accumulate.

Put another way: No matter how much we try to optimize ourselves—to find a cheat code, or press fast forward—everything takes the time it takes. Reading, writing, realizations—they’re done when they’re done. While I’ve heard this message before, it’s only now—reading and reflecting on Saving Time—that I have begun to metabolize it. The hope is that I’ll be able to channel the resulting energy into something truly new.

I used to think I’d write a book like Odell’s. But somewhere along the way, I think I just stopped having much to say. (Sehgal might say Odell has too.) I’d written, usually shallowly, on so many different topics, I was scraping the barrel of my knowledge, while rapidly extinguishing any flicker of deeper interest. From that point on, not only have I felt the stories that I was writing were often a waste of other people’s time, I also stopped being able to enjoy the writing that other people produced. Every headline felt vaguely familiar, even if, in reality, my understanding of the topic was trivial.

Of course, it must be admitted that many other journalists are probably in the same boat as me: bored and burnt out, writing stories, or producing podcasts, or making videos that feel derivative because they are. The current media ecosystem has little space for experimentation. No industry wants to allow its workers to slow down—a prerequisite, I think, for quality work. And it’s painfully clear that creative fields are almost exclusively the playground of the already wealthy; with rent this high and health care this hard to get, many people, people with fresh ideas and new ways of looking at the world, struggle to gain entry into the arts and entertainment.

In the news and publishing industry, of which Odell and I are both a part, there is another issue at play: namely, that we will need a revolution of the political and economic order if we ever want the hope of having something new to talk about. It’s true that all the right words on climate change have already been said. And until we take action, we’ll not only be charbroiled to death, we’ll be bored out of our minds as we burn.

For a time this winter, I wondered if communication under these conditions was even possible. Now I think a better life starts with talking one-to-one. I don’t know if I’m cut out to do what Odell does—to syncopate a stranger’s heartbeat with mine through the pages of a book or the glare of a screen. But I know that I still enjoy relating to others—in person. More and more, becoming a psychotherapist seems like a more viable path for me than journalism. Where mass communications are generic and diffuse, counseling is a direct, and highly personalized, exchange. I’d get to go back to school and learn something new, and at a depth I’ve never really experienced. Perhaps most importantly, it sounds like fun.

Back at the sensory deprivation party, I did get one big surprise. As the minutes ticked by, I found myself focusing more on scents than anything anyone had to say. After a lifetime of mediocrity, my nose suddenly was capable of distinguishing other people by the smell of their breath alone—a new and strange kind of intimacy. For going on a year, I’ve had that sinking feeling that I have, quite literally, heard it all before. But I hadn’t smelled it. That, at least, was new. It’s a feeling I’ll be chasing with whatever time I have left.