Jenny Odell on neighboring

How to do nothingThis past weekend in my message at Eastbrook, “Living Like Light in the World,” I referenced some words by Jenny Odell from her quirky and wonderful book, How to Do Nothing. If you care about the way the information economy is malforming us and the ways in which we willingly subject ourselves to it, you should read the book. The quotation was an excerpt on neighboring, something we have been talking about at Eastbrook all through this month of May. I shared a slightly shorter version of this because of time, but here is what she wrote on pages 134-135 of the book.


In fact, I have experienced this sudden transformation, although thankfully not because of a disaster. My boyfriend and I live in a large apartment complex that’s next to the house of a family of four, and when we’re sitting on our balcony and they’re sitting on their porch, we can easily see each other. The sound of the man listening to dad rock while weeding, or the outbursts of the two young sons (such as fart noises followed by cackling), became comforting background noise for us. But we didn’t learn each other’s names for two years, and we may not have chatted at all if it hadn’t been for the neighborliness of Paul, the dad.

One day Paul invited us over for dinner. Because I hadn’t been in a neighbor’s home since I was a teenager, it was unexpectedly surreal to be inside the house that forms a permanent part of the view from our apartment. The interior of the house went from being an idea to a palpable reality. And just like their view of the street similar to ours, but slightly different-our neighbors were people who we had no reason not to know, but who we probably wouldn’t have met in our usual circles, online or otherwise. That meant that there were things that we had to explain to each other that might have been taken for granted in our respective habitual contexts-and in these explanations we probably all saw ourselves from a new angle. For my part, the experience made me realize how similar the life situations of most of my friends are, and how little time I spend in the amazing bizarro world of kids.

When we arrived back to our apartment, it felt different to me-less like the center of things. Instead the street was full of such “centers,” and each one contained other lives, other rooms, other people turning in for the night and worrying their own worries for the next dy. Of course I had already accepted all of this in an abstract sense, but it wasn’t felt. And as silly as this story may sound to anyone who is used to knowing their neighbors, I find it worthwhile to recount because it bears out what I’ve experienced with other expansions of attention: they’re hard to reverse. When something goes from being an idea to a reality, you can’t easily force your perception back into the narrow container it came from.

[From Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019), 134-135.]

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