Play It as It Delays

Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me BY Andrew Santella. Dey Street Books. Hardcover, 208 pages. $25.

The cover of Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

Procrastination is the most confusing form of self-destruction. At least heroin addicts get high. Procrastinators watch YouTube videos. They walk their dogs to excess. They go to the gym and revise the first sentence of their first novel in their minds. Then they go back home and get on their iPhones. Before they know it it is 1 AM and they are alarmingly well-informed about the Kardashians. And it is not even as if they are enjoying all this, this incessant shirking of existence, because procrastination is the opposite of embracing the moment. It is passing the time while telling yourself a story about your life in which all the good parts occur in the later chapters. You are your very own picaresque hero, starting out on the big quest any day now. Meanwhile, you are forty.

Of course, every procrastinator (from the Latin cras, “tomorrow”) has his reasons. He is the most reasonable person in the world.

“There are so many reasons to put off doing something that I sometimes think that the universe must actively want me to procrastinate,” writes Andrew Santella in Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me (Dey Street, $26). There is his phone, which won’t stop pinging him; and his Fitbit, which has transformed him into a footstep-counting fiend; and his email; and the internet. There are his inhibiting fears: of success, failure, other people, exotic travel, death, life. There are the little chores around the house. In the parlance of behavioral economists, there is “hyperbolic discounting.” In the parlance of poets, there is the abyss: “Who’s to say that my work isn’t a distraction from something vastly more important? Who’s to say that the daily scramble up the greased ramp of achievement isn’t itself a pitiable delusion?” Who’s to say that the ramp is greased?

Despite its subtitle, Soon is not merely a “history”; it is a stylized re-creation of what happens when a procrastinator tries to write this history. This involves Santella, a guide to the museum who is also one of the exhibits, in a number of contradictions. They show up most clearly in his tone, and, specifically, in his penchant for a kind of ambiguous comedy. It is the comedy of calling the “daily scramble” a “pitiable delusion,” which, even if it expresses a devastating truth about life, is not a line you can take all that seriously. (This is not exactly how Santella feels, you suspect, even if it is a feeling he occasionally has.) Is Soon serious? Sometimes it laughs, sometimes it shrieks. And sometimes, I think, it wants you to laugh at its shrieks: “Can I really afford to spend my day doing mere work?”

For a short book about delay written by a man with avowed focus issues, it covers a fair amount of ground: Middlemarch, the to-do list, the sinister (to a procrastinator) sternness of the German accent, the “Great Procrastinators” and some not-so-great ones. He is for the most part a competent reporter, but, as he seems to sense, he is more entertaining when recounting his incompetence. For one journalistic trip, he flies to New Orleans—twice. The first time, he fails to talk to anybody. “I’ve always liked mornings, and am less self-pitying, less of a pain in the ass, then than at any other time of the day. In the morning, anything seems possible . . . by four in the afternoon, I have given up entirely on myself and on humanity.” Such is the emotional roller coaster of never quite getting on the ride.

Anne Collier, My Goals for One Year, 2007, C-print, 45 3/4 × 55". Courtesy of the artist; Anton Kern Gallery, New York; Galerie Neu, Berlin; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; and Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles/© Anne Collier
Anne Collier, My Goals for One Year, 2007, C-print, 45 3/4 × 55". Courtesy of the artist; Anton Kern Gallery, New York; Galerie Neu, Berlin; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; and Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles/© Anne Collier

Soon has a case to make, and it has anecdotes and factoids to relay. The sections on Darwin and da Vinci are, perhaps, excessively facetious, but they pass by pleasurably enough. Still, Santella is the best thing in this book, and the fairly conventional work of history he has put together is most compelling as a vehicle for his story. He is not inordinately eccentric. Santella is fifty-three, and he lives in Brooklyn. As a member of the “tribe of independent workers” (i.e., a freelance writer), he has had some experience of deadlines: He has listened, as the late Douglas Adams once put it, to “the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” He calls himself a “powerfully self-motivated shirker,” and the admission lends him an easy charm. Indeed, this rather considerable charm makes it just about possible to see how Santella has survived for so long as a writer, despite writing (to go by Google) almost nothing—and this despite the fact that, as he must remind his wife, “I’m always writing.” (She’s just caught him napping.)

As for what happens when Santella actually writes, you see why he naps. “Here’s how it would go for me,” he writes:

Having sat down at my desk to write, I would decide that what was really necessary was a new pot of coffee. The coffee-making would require a trip to the kitchen. Once in the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice the burned-out lightbulb over the counter. Replacing the lightbulb would require a trip to the corner shop. No way could I walk to the corner to get a new lightbulb, though; I had writing to do. On the other hand, the store was next to a really outstanding bagel place.

It’s a chain reaction culminating in an endless sequence of nothing ever happening. You stand up from your desk, the ground opens beneath you, and somehow you land right back in your chair—only it’s midnight now and you hate yourself.

Santella may be a procrastination enthusiast—he speaks, at one point, of his “love affair with procrastination”—but he concedes that it runs on “twisted logic.” He also blames the Civil War on it (in fact, he seems to blame the Crusades on it), and he ruefully perceives the toll that it has taken on his life. He refers, rather delicately, to the “thin evidence of my personal contributions to the universal good.” He writes of his worldlier friends, “I envy their e-mails that casually mention, ‘I’m in Amsterdam.’” Santella doesn’t like to travel. Or rather, he loves to travel—in theory. But he would prefer to do it later. Much later: “some future date, a date that often never comes.” Continues Santella, “It would be only fair if travel procrastinators like me could collect some official tag or stamp or ticket . . . representing each of the places we have not gone.”

Like many of the jokes in Soon, that one isn’t exactly witty: It is inevitable. It is like a pun, or a dialectical progression, or—if you prefer—what happens to Wile E. Coyote at the end of every episode of Looney Tunes. (Santella is a Wile E. fan: “The fact of his stupidity didn’t negate his heroism.” In his permanently ineffectual pursuit of the Road Runner, he is a symbol for “the romance of process”—i.e., of never getting anything done.) This pseudo-logical half-joking is something like Soon’sstylistic signature. Elsewhere, Santella tell us that “To be a patient is to be impatient,” and that ”Whenever I couldn’t bring myself to do what I knew I should be doing, I made to-do lists.” “I kept sliding deeper and deeper into a hole relative to my deadlines,” he writes, “a hole being a void, and avoiding about the only thing I was doing about work right then.”

These are all examples of Santella’s cleverness, and of a lurking absurdity in language. In a way that is funny (but, perhaps importantly, not that funny), they abuse the native good humor of words; they take connections and overextend them. This technique is most pronounced when Santella is writing about writing Soon—“the book,” as he puts it, “I have spent my whole life not writing.” Not-writing is, possibly, a more exotic activity than it sounds like. “Who wants to drive the width of Pennsylvania just to find out how far he will go to avoid the work he should be doing?” Santella asks. He’s at a Hampton Inn an hour outside Pittsburgh.

There is a kind of schizophrenia to this performance. Things, the author included, keep becoming their opposites. When Santella is reporting on what he found out in Pennsylvania—when he is writing about procrastination—he writes a bit like Malcolm Gladwell. But when he is reporting on his mental state in the Hampton Inn—when he is dramatizing his procrastination while writing about procrastination—he writes a bit like Thomas Bernhard. We go back and forth, from Gladwell mode to Bernhard mode. Santella doesn’t so much wrap up his arguments as finally fall off the balance beam: “Should I sit here or sit there? Write this or write that? Should I even be a writer at all?”

If Santella’s tone is all over the place, it nonetheless reflects a kind of literary strategy. In a late passage, he writes:

We don’t know ourselves and therefore don’t really know what we want. One self wants one thing; another, something else. . . . My self at this moment may want to blow off my obligations; my self of the future will have to reckon with the consequences. Procrastination happens when we have trouble reconciling the competing factions within the parliament of our selves.

The technical problem seems to have been how to fit this parliament into one verbal building—how to stay true to the experience of the irreconcilable while also producing the kind of book people buy at airports. And his solution is (to put it Santella-ishly) a nonsolution. It is to let the factions within him be. Soon is a text that stylistically declines to form a central government. It is the essence of a certain kind of nonfiction to cast an ironic eye on other people’s irrationality. What sets Soon apart (sort of) is that it embodies this irrationality. Soon is funny and smart, but also—and I mean this as praise—a little insane.

For it does feel a little insane, being a procrastinator. And the main reason it does is that it is so easy to find reasons to procrastinate. Most things truly can wait. The novel you never finish might well haunt you, but so might the flaws of a finished one. Finishing, in general, is harder to rationalize than postponing. And when you wait till tomorrow, you can almost forget that tomorrow may never come—that we are finite beings, who must die. People who respect deadlines aren’t so much smart as wisely superstitious. They know better than to think they can win an argument with the nature of time. Anyway, that’s my guess. I’m not one of them.

James Camp is a writer living in Brooklyn.