Two thumbs up for Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal by Gary S. Cross. Nonfiction.
A history of the Western world’s relationship with non-work time, up until the present. Shockingly interesting—the kind of book you keep thinking about. I don’t think I would have read it had it been from an economist’s, a philosopher’s, or a psychologist’s perspective; but the thing that historians have which so often those in other disciplines do not is a much-needed sense of perspective. Do not expect advice on How to Live a Happier Life. This is a fairly academic text that covers many centuries of background at breakneck pace, and only in the last chapters attempts to analyze why we, in the modern age, are so often dissatisfied with how we spend our time. (The author admits that he doesn’t have any good solutions.) I have, I suppose, a much-greater-than-average understanding of daily life in the pre-industrial past—I write heavily-researched historical novels and historical fantasy. Still, I had no idea about the astonishing international political activism that led to 40-hours-a-week becoming “standard.” And the way he divided desired leisure activities across class lines was fascinating to me on a personal level. There was at least one area where I felt the author fell short—his acknowledgement that poor working-class people don’t benefit from the 40-hours standard felt pretty insufficient. Still, this is a fascinating read. Whatever your current level of knowledge, your mind will be blown in some way. I’ll never think of phonographs the same way.
This is not a story of declension, of a lost golden age, or a lament about sidetracked historical ideals that we should admire and possibly recover. That would be silly and reactionary. Moreover, elite values rooted in historical privilege and snobbery should not be a standard for a critique of contemporary culture. Nor is this a story of unalterable, deterministic trends in technology or political power. In some measure, the consumption bias regarding free time was a historic choice (or better, a sociohistorical shift) that seldom was consciously made by individuals, even though it set the path that led to the present, limiting our choices today. It still behooves us to recognize the alternatives not chosen. In the process, we can consider whether those choices made sense in the past, and more important, whether they make sense today.
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