A few years ago, I embarked on a project of reading many classic books. I soon noticed something. Books like Moby Dick felt almost…purposefully lengthy. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed Melville’s epic! But even as he keeps the plot going, he indulges in side plots, and set pieces on the biology of whales and such that a modern editor would almost certainly excise.
Back then, novels were one of people’s main forms of entertainment. And so length wasn’t really a downside. If your book took up a fortnight of evenings rather than just a week, all the better. The job of such entertainment was to fill time, or as some might say, to kill time.
(If you listen to the Before Breakfast podcast, I published an episode on this topic this week.)
I have been thinking of this lately as many of us are on lockdown. People with very young children may have less downtime than before, but for those whose kids are past the preschool stage, the absence of activities and driving to playdates and getting ready for school and such does open up at-home hours — exactly what folks in Melville’s day were contending with. Certainly, screen time fills some of it, but there is a point of diminishing returns. And so there’s been interest in older forms of fun whose primary purpose, or at least a major selling point, is filling hours.
Think long board games. Big puzzles. Needle crafts (I picture Ma in the Little House on the Prairie books sewing at night while Pa plays the fiddle). Bigger books. Major Lego endeavors. Baking projects. In 168 Hours, I riff on some old Good Housekeeping recipes that took all day to complete. If you were ever going to attempt such things…now is the time.
The truth is, with some forethought, many people would have time for such things in normal life. After all, people with full-time jobs still manage 2.07 hours of TV per day (14.49 per week), per the American Time Use Survey. But when there are other things we could be doing, we think “busy” and assume we don’t have time for reading Moby Dick. Because we assume we don’t have time for bigger stuff, we fill our leisure time with the easiest options (screen time). These activities are about killing time too, but since the time can be killed in smaller chunks, it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’re doing.
In the long run, it’s probably more satisfying to kill time with a 1000-piece puzzle than in a thousand small Twitter checks. I doubt this will change anything long-term — eventually we’ll be back to a new normal — but maybe on the margins this might broaden the default options for fun.