Arnold Bennett’s Fight Against Steampunk Social Media

How to Live

In 1910, Arnold Bennett published a short volume titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He was alarmed with the way the newly emergent British middle class seemed to waste their time outside of work. The average salaryman of this era doesn’t live, he noted, but instead “muddles through,” wasting time — that “inexplicable raw material of everything,” the supply of which “though gloriously regular is cruelly restricted.”

Bennett being Bennett decided he could tell these muddlers how to live better. So he wrote this guide.

I come back to this book from time to time. If you look past the standard Bennett snobbery and occasional dash of Victorian ornateness — “inexplicable raw material of everything”…really?  —  it’s both surprisingly pragmatic and relevant to all sorts of contemporary issues.

In my latest skim, for example, the following passage caught my attention. It’s Bennett’s summary of the standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker:

“You don’t eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano…. By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to bed; and it is conceivable that you are acquainted with a genuinely good whisky. At last you go to bed, exhausted by the day’s work. Six hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office…”

To Bennett, these six wasted hours (“gone like magic, unaccountably gone!”) are a tragedy. What caught my attention about this vignette, however, is that he seems to be describing, in essence, an early-twentieth century version of killing time by messing around on your phone — it’s steampunk social media.

This interpretation is important because it underscores something I often overlook when I chastise people about mindless digital tinkering: this attraction toward the mindless is not new, but instead something that we’ve been struggling with since the initial introduction of leisure time.

Learning to live, then as now, is hard work.

I mention this not to offer a definitive solution, but to remind myself that the depth I preach, both in work and personal affairs, is not a default mode subverted only recently by new technology. It is instead an aspirational goal that requires intention, practice, and perhaps even some wisdom from an antiquated British social critic.

With this in mind, if you’re looking for some concrete ideas about how to train your mind for more substantive fare, you could do worse than to consider the following intriguing suggestion from Bennett: take just 90 minutes, only three nights a week, and dedicated them toward a quality pursuit.

“If you persevere [with this habit],” he writes, “you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive.”


Blog – Cal Newport

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