A charming, timely and important book, and great fun to read, but ultimately I found it far too useful
The Usefulness of the Useless by Nuccio Ordine—a professor of Literature at University Calabria—is a fun read through the history of some well-known and not so well-known thinkers organized around the topic of uselessness, something near and dear to my heart.
It’s long been my contention that humans, thanks to our ability to cooperate and crowd-source our survival needs (courtesy of empathetic brains and language), have the unique ability to pursue useless activities. And by useless, I mean activities that don’t contribute to the preservation and good health of the individual or the species. Art, creativity, reading for pleasure, ambling, cloud spotting—in other words, all the pleasant, nonessential things that make it so delightful to be a human—are useless in the evolutionary scheme of things. When I stumbled onto this book in the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, I thought I had found a kindred spirit ready to defend uselessness as the most triumphant of all the human attributes.
Rather, it is a defense of uselessness as a source for the useful, which was engaging but a bit disappointing. Ordine weaves together snippets of writing about knowledge and usefulness ranging from the ancient Greeks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from Petrach to Dante. He builds the case that we need unstructured, unfocused, un-monetized time to think and create and teach and research and pursue science, so that great discoveries can be made and great works of art can be created. His vision is especially cogent for scientists, whose pursuit of knowledge for the sake of acquiring knowledge most readily translates to social good, but also to students who — courtesy of a liberal education (that is, not designed solely to help them in a specific trade) yields more intellectually rounded people able to deliver a greater civic good in whatever their pursuits may be.
All of this seems undeniably true, but to me, it means the opposite of useless—rather, it is longer-term view of what is “useful.”
Still, it was a very enjoyable read. The jumping off point is an essay by Abraham Flexner from 1939 called the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. Flexner is famous, at least to some, for standardizing the medical school curriculum and seeking order out of chaos.
I enjoyed his writing, and his clear command of the greats from across history, especially this lovely sentiment from Baudelaire:
“Commerce is essentially satanic.”
Or this, from Theophile Gautier (whose book I purchased just to read his now famous “Art for Art’s Sake” preface):
“The only truly beautiful things are useless, everything useful is ugly, because it is the expression of a certain need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting, as is his wretched and infirm nature. The most useful place in the home is the toilet.”
Usefulness of the Useless is a charming, timely and important book, and great fun to read, but ultimately I found it far too useful.