Waiting for the Weekend

A whole two days off from work, in which we can do what we please, has only recently become a near-universal right. What we choose to do looks increasingly like work, and idleness has acquired a bad name. Herein, a history of leisure  
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The word "weekend" started life as "week-end" but lost its hyphen somewhere along the way, ceasing to be merely the end of the week and acquiring, instead, an autonomous and sovereign existence. "Have a good weekend," we say to one another—never "Have a good week." Where once the week consisted of weekdays and Sunday, it now consists of weekdays and weekend. Ask most people to name the first day of the week and they will answer, Monday, of course; fifty years ago the answer would have been Sunday. Wall calendars still show Sunday as the first day of the week, and children are taught the days of the week starting with Sunday, but how long will these conventions last? Sunday, once the day of rest, has become merely one of two days of what is often strenuous activity. Although we continue to celebrate the traditional religious and civic holidays—holy days—these now account for only a small portion of our total nonworking days, and are overshadowed by the 104 days of secular weekends.

For most of us life assumes a different rhythm on the weekend; we sleep in, cut the grass, wash the car. We also go to the movies, especially during hot weather. We travel. And of course we exercise and play games. Some of these pastimes, like tennis, have an old history and a newfound popularity; others, like whitewater canoeing, windsurfing, and hang-gliding, are more recent. Most are distinguished from nineteenth-century recreations such as croquet and golf by their relative arduousness and even riskiness.

Although the weekend is a time for sports, for shopping, and for household chores, it is foremost a manifestation of the structure of our leisure. The chief Oxford English Dictionary definition of leisure is "time which one can spend as one pleases." That is, "free" time. But in one of his popular columns in The Illustrated London News—a Saturday paper—G. K. Chesterton pointed out that leisure should not be confused with liberty. Contrary to most people's expectations, the presence of the first by no means assures the availability of the second. This confusion arose, according to Chesterton, because the term "leisure" is used to describe three different things: "The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third (and perhaps most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing." The first, he acknowledged, was the most common form of leisure, and the one that of late—he was writing in the early 1890s—had shown the greatest quantitative increase. The second—the liberty to fashion what one willed out of one's leisure time—was more unusual and tended to be the province of artists and other creative individuals. It was the third, however, that was obviously his favorite, because it allowed idleness—in Chesterton's view, the truest form of leisure.

Perhaps only someone as portly as Chesterton (Maisie Ward, his biographer, estimated that he weighed almost 300 pounds) could rhapsodize over idleness. More likely, inactivity attracted him because he was the least lazy of men; his bibliography lists more than a hundred published books—biographies, novels, essays, poetry, and short stories. He was also a magazine editor and a lecturer and broadcaster. Although he managed to cram all this into a relatively short life (he died at sixty-two), it was, as his physique would suggest, a life replete with material enjoyments, and surprisingly unhurried. Not a life of leisure, perhaps, but one carried out at a leisurely pace.

Chesterton's observation that modern society provided many opportunities for leisure but made it "more and more easy to get some things and impossible to get others" continues to be true. Should you want to play tennis or golf, for example, courts and courses abound. Fancy a video? There are plenty of specialty stores, lending libraries, and mail-order clubs. Lepidopterists, however, will have a difficult time finding unfenced countryside in which to practice their avocation. If your pastime is laying bricks and you do not have a rural estate, as Winston Churchill had, you will not find a bricklaying franchise at your neighborhood mall. Better take up golf instead.

Chesterton argued that a man compelled by lack of choice—or by social pressure—to play golf when he would rather be attending to some solitary hobby was not so different from the slave who might have several hours of leisure while his overseer slept but had to be ready to work at a moment's notice. Neither could be said to be the master of his leisure. Both had free time but not freedom. To press this parallel further, have we become enslaved by the weekend?

At first glance it is an odd question, for surely it is our work that enslaves us, not our free time. We call people who become obsessed by their jobs workaholics, but we don't have a word for someone who is possessed by recreation. Maybe we should. I have many acquaintances for whom weekend activities seem more important than workaday existence, and who behave as if the week were merely an irritating interference in their real, extracurricular lives. I sometimes have the impression that to really know these weekend sailors, mountain climbers, and horsewomen, I would have to accompany them on their outings and excursions—see them in their natural habitat, so to speak. But would I see a different person, or merely the same one governed by different conventions of comportment, behavior, accoutrement, and dress?

I'm always charmed by old photographs of skiers which show groups of people in what appear to be street clothes, with uncomplicated pieces of bent wood strapped to sturdy walking boots. These men and women have a playful and unaffected air. Today every novice is caparisoned in skin-tight spandex, like an Olympic racer, and even cross-country skiing, a simple enough pastime, has been infected by a preoccupation with correct dress, authentic terminology, and up-to-date equipment. This reflects an attitude toward play which is different from what it was in the past. Most outdoor sports, once simply muddled through, are now undertaken with a high degree of seriousness. "Professional" used to be a word that distinguished someone who was paid for an activity from the sportsman; today the word has come to denote anyone with a high degree of proficiency; "professional-quality" equipment is available to—and desired by—all. Conversely, "amateur," a wonderful word literally meaning "lover," has been degraded to mean a rank beginner or anyone without a certain level of skill. "Just an amateur," we say; it is not, as it once was, a compliment.

The lack of carelessness in our recreation, the sense of obligation to get things right, and the emphasis on protocol and decorum do represent an enslavement of a kind. People used to "play" tennis; now they "work" on their backhand. It is not hard to imagine what Chesterton would have thought of such dedication; this is just the sort of laborious pursuit of play that he so often derided. "If a thing is worth doing," he once wrote, it is worth doing badly."

Chesterton held the traditional view that leisure was different from the type of recreation typically afforded by the modern weekend. His own leisure pastimes included an eclectic mix of the unfashionable and the bohemian—sketching, collecting weapons, and playing with the cardboard cutouts of his toy theater. Leisure was the opportunity for personal, even idiosyncratic, pursuits, not for ordered recreation; it was for private reverie rather than for public spectacles. If a sport was undertaken, it was for the love of playing—not of winning, nor even of playing well. Above all, free time was to remain that: free of the encumbrance of convention, free of the need for busyness, free for the "noble habit of doing nothing at all." That hardly describes the modern weekend.

Work Versus Leisure

What is the meaning of the weekday-weekend cycle? Is it yet another symptom of the standardization and bureaucratization of everyday life that social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have warned about? Is the weekend merely the cunning marketing ploy of the materialist culture, a device to increase consumption? Is it a deceptive placebo to counteract the boredom and meaninglessness of the workplace?

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