Media Diet: Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson is a writer, thinker, and slacker. He is also the editor of England’s “emerged zine” The Idler, which promotes the art and science of loafing, chronicles the modern idler’s lifestyle, and combats the Protestant work ethic in all its forms. The Idler was the winner in the Alternative Press Awards 1995 “General Excellence/Under 5,000 circulation” category (see July-August 1995 Utne Reader). We interviewed Tom about his media diet.

What magazines do you read?

Actually, I prefer flipping to reading, because the act of flipping allows the mind to wander, without making a commitment to reading. Reading constrains your thoughts, and one of the greatest idle pleasures is daydreaming. I like flipping through Benetton’s Colors, because it’s almost a sensual pleasure, and Playboy, because it is a sensual pleasure, and of course Utne Reader, because it is packed with new ideas. Speaking of which, when I first read Wired I thought it was really brilliant, because there are amazingly few magazines with new ideas in them. But Wired demands that its employees devote their life and soul to their work, which seems to me completely mad. If you set yourself up as a countercultural rebel, that ought to extend to your management practices as well. They actually have an in-house cook, who probably gives the employees special food to keep them active! The whole promise of technology is “more play, less work,” but what’s happening is precisely the opposite.

What books are you enjoying now?

I’m reading Marcus Aurelius, because Penguin has just released a reader that only costs 60p. I like his insistence that change is the essence of life, but am less keen on his disavowal of pleasure. He says, in essence, that the fact that you always regret having had a big night out means that doing so must be a bad idea. That seems insane. I prefer to try to banish guilt from my life–even though we’ve been brought up to feel guilty about such things. Excess is a natural human need.

Do you use the Internet?

I do enjoy the occasional purposeless meander on the Internet. But the idea of “net surfing” seems like too much effort. At The Idler, we prefer to think of it as “net pottering.” One should enjoy the actual act of clicking from site to site and the thoughts that activity sets off, as opposed to purposeful searching. It’s a modern version of browsing through a secondhand bookstore or wandering through the city streets at night. It shouldn’t be “What useful thing can I get out of this as quickly as possible?” but rather “What a pleasant way to waste a couple of hours.”

What TV programs do you watch?

Saturday morning kids’ TV, mostly. I only watch the news when I can be bothered to, which isn’t often. I believe that it’s a mistake always to attempt to be “caught up.” Topical news isn’t trivial, necessarily, but it is ephemeral, and I’d prefer to spend my time contemplating truly important matters–the fundamental questions of life.

Which author has had the greatest influence on you?

Dr. Samuel Johnson, naturally, because he, too, was a chronic procrastinator–which is comforting. If you read his journals, when he’s 30 he’s writing angry notes to himself: “I resolve henceforward to get up at 8 every morning, instead of at noon, and to read a portion of the Scriptures every day.” He’s writing precisely the same things at 70; he never kept any of his resolutions. But he did manage to write an entire dictionary! His series of essays called The Idler was the inspiration for our magazine. I also like his work style: Johnson thought an idler was like a heavy rock, which, once actually pushed into motion, could then get going at a tremendous pace. I want to live exactly as he did, but without all the guilt.

Is there a film you’d like everyone to see?

Withnail and I is a hilarious account of two druggy unemployed actors spending a weekend in the country. It’s a central text for the modern British idler. Even in their degeneracy and seeming inactivity, the film’s characters aren’t wasting their time: They’re thinking a lot, talking, developing their ideas. Not working can be very productive.

Is there a book you’d like everyone to read?

The Right to Be Lazy, by Paul Lafargue. Lafargue was Karl Marx’s son-in-law, and a great anti-work theorist. He campaigned in 19th-century France for a shorter working day. Marx was a bit appalled by him because his own philosophy had work very much at its center, whereas Lafargue believed that we’ve been infected by a masochistic lust for work, which isn’t really necessary.

In important matters, whose opinion do you trust?

Charles Handy, the management guru. He promotes less work and more fun, too, only he does it to businessmen! I trust Gavin and Matthew, with whom I work on The Idler. Most of my friends.

What current trends in the media most trouble you?

Celebrity obsession, because it relieves people from having to think. Magazines that take four months to pay their writers! But especially the overriding emphasis on insanely active lifestyles: going to the gym, bungee jumping, skydiving, that sort of thing.

What are the sources of your best ideas?

Staring out the window, riding the train, doing the washing up, walking through the city, being under the effects of Ecstasy, talking to friends while drunk.

Where are your most creative spaces?

My head and my bed.

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