Just killing time

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.

9 thoughts on “Just killing time

  1. Weren’t authors primarily paid by the word? I thought that was why novels were so verbose back in the day. I know that was the case for the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky being prime examples of this.

  2. About 10 years ago (wow, time flies!) I embarked on Les Miserables. DS had made the cast in his high school production (as Enjolras, who pretty much always wears a red vest). So I figured I’d read the book. Started the day after auditions in mid-January, and barely, just barely, finished by closing night in May 9. And that was with wholesale skipping of pages and pages describing tree pruning, the history of clergy in Switzerland, Napoleonic battles, the Paris sewer system, and the production of whatever-it-was that Valjean’s factory was renowned for. More information than a Tom Clancy novel. But I suppose some books were also a form of education, whereas today, if I want more information on something I read in a book, I google it.
    Oh, and yes, the high school production was pretty darned good.

  3. I did one rather complicated baking project this week while stuck at home. It involved multiple rounds of treating the dough and letting it rise etc. Probably took about 3 hours. Would never do this “normally”. And we ended up with some fantastic treats.

    1. Do you have a partner? What do they do while you spent those 3 hours baking? Do they have their own interests to keep themselves occupied indoors?

  4. The reading of books (and other solo hobbies) is *more* difficult now during this lockdown: my husband is highly extroverted and he’s not a reader. Whereas he’d normally meet up with friends a couple times a week without me (wherein I get my quiet time), that’s not happening now.
    Several people have told me, “You must love this! You’ll have so much more time for books during this lockdown.” If only…It is, in fact, the opposite. lol

    1. LOL, I’m similarly situated. I work f/t (now from home), meanwhile, I live with my husband and my mom (in a basement apartment but all the same) and my middle schooler, who is on “extended spring break” right now. Guess who they all want to talk to?! Fortunately my mom takes my son out for walks, but down time, I do not have…

  5. I am very fascinating with how people in the past (before TV and internet) filled their free time. If you have tips on books, shows or articles about that, I’d be happy to read/see those!

  6. Laura, I love this perspective! I am currently reading Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. It is 569 pages long and printed in a small font. Just yesterday I was thinking that books these day are not this full of detail about side issues. They are plot driven, and almost every word drives the plot. I am purposefully trying to enjoy each moment of this book. Yesterday was a four pages of detail about a stagecoach traveling from one town to another in the Rockies. Scary!

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