Cohen is good at revealing all the ways in which, even as the 21st century induces exhaustion, it banishes the expression of it; and everyone will recognise what he has to say about how life can feel like a facsimile, one in which we merely go through the motions, when we should be living it to the full... Nevertheless, Not Working is rather a clunky mashup of case studies, memoir, literary criticism and biography. His wildly creative slackers and opt-outers include Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol and Orson Welles – examples so extreme as to be less than useless in terms of illuminating his central arguments about the possibilities of non-work.
I don’t know how difficult it is for Josh Cohen, who is an engaging, multitasking cultural theorist, even though he claims to be a bit of a daydreamer in this book about not working... For this is a book about our secret desires and our secret desires involve, for many of us, doing nothing... Cohen is attuned to all the ways we may avoid ourselves... Cohen, though, is fantastically good at making us question our hard-won strategies of avoidance and resistance to stopping.
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop explores the relationship between inertia and the life of the mind by revisiting the lives and works of several giants from cultural history. It is a curious blend of personal memoir, arts criticism, literary biography and psychoanalytic sleuthing... Not Working proceeds in a similarly languid, round-the-houses fashion, the destination being less important than the journey. Lack of through-line notwithstanding, there is much food for thought in this erudite homage to catatonia.
Not Working is not a manifesto for the downing of tools or a mass walkout, nor is it an overtly political book — an author interested in that particular angle could surely fill page after page about the apathetic populace in the modern age. But it is a persuasive call for a re-evaluation of how we live our lives and the things we find value in. Cohen usefully grounds the more theoretical wrangling of each chapter with a composite case history gleaned from his consulting room. This is then followed by a famous example to illustrate each of his character types: the Pop artist Andy Warhol (burnout), the actor and director Orson Welles (slob), the poet Emily Dickinson (daydreamer) and the writer David Foster Wallace (slacker), figures we’re no doubt familiar with, but about whose lives Cohen proffers new insight