A favorite book of mine is one that looks back. One that is thickly layered in the complications of the author’s view. I don’t think I knew this or could state this as plainly before this book. For a while I assumed it was weakness to be interested in this somewhat incomplete form - is that even the right word? - that is, autobiographical writing. But I love writing that leaves room for one’s own thoughts. And I therefore loved this book which is a prime example of doing the form justice: The Art Of The Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl.
It sounds like a straight up self-help book than it is. It is much more a beautiful mix of memoir and essay that circles around the topic of leisure and how it relates to writing, describing and living in general. What is great about these kinds of books is their way of heightening and compressing reality in its descriptions without loosing the connection to it. And so nothing is ever just the cause of anything or arranges itself neatly into a narrative ark. We might construe easy cause-and-effect relationships between the defining moments of our lives but at the same time we know - if we take the time to notice - that it is much more complex than that. Nowadays there is nothing more boring than a too neatly arranged story.
While Hampl wrote this book, her husband died from a heart disease. Her longing to see him again, her struggles of not being able to believe - as a person being raised in the Catholic Faith no less - that there could actually be another side, where he would wait for her… I could feel that - as somebody raised devoid of any religion (Post-GDR east Berlin). I can imagine how this - having to realize that the partner you miss is gone for good, this person you spent most of your time with, the one which also happens to be your first reader - must have felt. This entanglement builds a lot of the emotional scaffolding in the book. I think it was pretty effective and lends the book a nice counterweight to Hampls beautifully written investigations of a leisurely life.
I liked how history and especially her engagement with history writing made it possible to look over the author’s shoulder while she discovers new wrinkles in the story of the Ladies of Llangollen - two Irish Women - who sought to live a “life of retirement” in the Welsh countryside in the 18th century - only to become famous for it. Montaigne is an important part of this book, too. He is her patron saint of description, observation and as the inventor of the essay an important corner stone of reflection. He is the poster child of the art of the wasted day. In another part of the book, she visits the almost forgotten but now famous proto-geneticist Gregor Mendel as well. He never managed to pass the exam to become a teacher. So he instead lived the life of a monk.
Monks and Nuns are a big topic of the book. If not literally then figuratively, most of the people that are practicing the art of the wasted day are living a fairly structured life - an interesting paradox. But monastery life is not only structured but also slow. A structure followed slowly lends itself to being contemplative, to taking the time to observe and also describe. This kind of life, behind real or metaphorical walls might be a life lived in solitude (or: alone, but not lonely), is a life in which you are not needed all the time, not interrupted constantly, a life where your input, your action is not demanded all the time, where you can come to rest on the passing within and around you, as Montaigne might have put it.
The descriptions of her historical case studies are interwoven with her own life accounts. It’s all the stuff I love about this form of writing: vignettes, reflections, beautiful descriptions. Like in the end, where she and her husband travel down the Mississippi river in an old wooden cabin boat, seeing her home state from a different angle and therefore very differently than ever before.
The book also includes some well-reasoned advice. I loved her description of an anecdote in which a student of hers - she teaches writing at the University of Minnesota - didn’t know what to write about himself, because he only came from Fridley (one of many the suburbs of Minneapolis):
I stared at him. I didn’t, for a moment, comprehend that this was the dark disclosure, this the occasion of his misery: being from Fridley meant, surely, that he had nothing to say. In effect, had no life.
There it was again—nothin’ had ever happened to him and I was asking him to write about it.
“I have good news for you, Tommy,” I said. “The field’s wide open—nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet. It’s all yours.” (p. 185)
This passage was really eye-opening for me and put a finger on an important insight: Autobiographical writing doesn’t need to be anchored by an exceptional life. Or rather: Any life can be made to be interesting.
While writing this review I was googling around trying to find information about the book and its contents - I had listened to it through my local library - and I am a forgetful person. The book seemed to have gotten middling reviews in the aggregate. So I guess it’s not a book for everyone and who knows if I would’ve liked it as much, if I would’ve read instead of listening to it. Parts of the magic of a book like this lie in the sound - and since Hampl reads this herself we really get an impression of the sound she was aiming for.
For me it was an inspiring listen that made me write a lot more over the last three weeks and rediscover my love for memoirists writing like this.
If you are interested to see if this is for you: There is an excerpt about the Ladies of Llangollen on Longreads. And here is a short clip of Hampl’s performance of the beginning of the book’s chapter entitled “To Go”.
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