The Pleasures of Leisure by Robert Dessaix (2017). A review by John Cook

The Pleasures of Leisure

The number of copies of this book (30) in the BCC collection has to be an indication of the popularity and appreciation of this author by the reading public. Certainly I have enjoyed much of what he writes. There is a balance, however, in dealing with Dessaix. He is a beautiful writer with clarity and elegance. He has a very interesting background and range of interests which he is not shy to incorporate into his work. He is now getting older and very much aware of his mortality (recent dramatic illness) which combines with the former to mean that his material is unabashedly deeply personal and what could be more personal than what each of us seeks in whatever leisure time we have. As a consequence, some readers may find some of the references rather obscure (Grand Hotel Budapest and his spiritual adventures in India) and off-putting while those with shared familiarity will find must to enjoy.

The book is part sociology, part philosophy and part personal musings. Dessaix sees leisure as having three main components – loafing, nesting and play. Each has its pleasure and its traps which he explores sometimes (mostly) with relevance to his own life and sometimes others. He can be pretty sniffy and dismissive toward most things that have to do with sport (“Professional sport is never just play. It’s crowd control combined with big business.”) and one can only agree with most mass commercialised forms though there has to be  legitimacy for the smaller scale and more personal. One criticism levelled at this book has been that its coverage is overwhelmingly male. That is true and it does belie the general nature of the title. However, there is little indication that Dessaix would be all that familiar with a feminine perspective on the topic – a pity as some mention was surely warranted.

As always, I enjoyed his expeditions into places, people and forms of entertainment with which I share a strong interest and I share his concern for the manipulated nature of much social life today and a yearning for somewhat simpler pleasures (for me, reasonable white wine, fresh prawns and a quiet read somewhere like Amity Point on Stradbroke Island suffices well). Like the mania for the rich to look thinner (elegantly starved) and the poor to end up more obese, there is a lot of the pointless treadmill in modern life that seems so lacking in inward fulfilment and self-acceptance. In one telling instance, he speculates on the avid unconsidered pleasure of a dog playing a pointless game with his/her owner home from work seeking some pleasure in that (perhaps) brief period of leisure. I know a lot of pet owners for whom that is a truth.

I certainly agree with his conclusion (totally understandable) that reading is probably one of the greatest pleasures that leisure can deliver. It is certainly true in my case as my groaning bookshelves and this series of book notes attest.

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