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How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself

Remember how to make a spool tank? How to whip apples? What to do with a discarded umbrella? Whether “pennies” comes before or after “spank the baby” in mumbly-peg? And your kid never knew any of these things in the first place, to forget in the second place? Robert Paul Smith remembers, and he has set it down for all to see — these things and many others, like rubber-band guns, and slings, and clamshell bracelets, and the collection, care, and use of horse-chestnuts.

Illustrated by her wife Elinor, Robert’s book is about why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life. Perhaps we understand this intellectually, but we — now more than ever, it seems — have a profound civilizational anxiety about being alone. And the seed for it is increasingly planted in childhood — in an age when play is increasingly equated with screens and interfaces, being alone with a screen is not quite being alone at all, so the art of taking joy in one’s own company slips further and further out of reach.

“I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that, but I worry about something else even more, about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do. You get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.”

Born in 1915, in Brooklyn, in 1958, the year of the book’s release, Robert described himself as a 42-year-old kid. As well as of How to Do Nothing with Nobody, he is the author of the best-selling Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. and of the novels So It Doesn’t Whistle, The Journey, Because of My Love, and The Time and the Place. He died in 1977.

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