Reviews / Comptes rendus - Witold Rybczynski, Waiting for the Weekend

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Witold Rybczynski, Waiting for the Weekend

Hallie E. Bond
Adirondack Museum
Rybczynski, Witold. Waiting for the Weekend. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. 260 pp. Cloth $25.99, ISBN 0-670-83001-1.

1 Witold Rybczynski's Waiting for the Weekend is so wide ranging, geographically as well as chronologically, that at first glance it seems of little direct application to the material culture with which most of us in North America deal. The broad perspective it offers, however, is precisely what gives it its value for us. It is not, perhaps, the first book one should read in beginning a project in the history of leisure and recreation, but once one has the basic outline of one's story in mind and a familiarity with the material culture involved, it can prompt one to ask more questions of the evidence.

2 Rybczynski presents as his purpose an examination of how the weekend has become "the chief temporal institution of the modern age" and how this has affected the nature of leisure. From the younger Pliny to Eliade, from psychiatry to philosophy, from Japan to St. Andrews by the Sea, Rybczynski pulls observations on free time — how regular periods of it came about and what people do with it. His chapters on the evolution of the planetary week, the appearance of a regular special day, and the weekend as it evolved all over the Western world are of only peripheral interest to a student of material culture in North America, but do suit the essay nature of his book. More useful are his chapters on weekend retreats, weekend pastimes and, in particular, an exploration of popular urban leisure.

3 Perhaps the most appropriate chapter for the student of the history of leisure and recreation is "Sunday in the Park," the importance of which is emphasized by selection of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" for the dust cover illustration. In it Rybczynski presents in brief but comprehensible summary the major trends in popular culture that should form the basis of most studies of leisure and recreation in industrialized North America: the increasing democratization of leisure and the subsequent attempts of the better-off to distance themselves from the hoi polloi, the beginnings of an emphasis on outdoor pursuits for leisure activities, the increasing commercial, public, and communal nature of urban leisure, and the separation of leisure and recreation from the workaday world, both in time and place.

4 Some of Rybczynski's theses are easier to test with material evidence than others. Take, for example, the trend towards the democratization of leisure. By turning to the collection at my institution, the Adirondack Museum, I might look for the following sorts of evidence: What is available in camping equipment and when was it widely available? What are the relative prices of such equipment? How does recreational dress for women evolve? An important piece of camping equipment in this area is the canoe. When were cheap canoes available and when did they out-distance the indigenous Adirondack guideboat as the preferred boat? What were the modifications in design of canoes to suit novices out for pleasure paddling, as contrasted with design suited to wilderness transportation?

5 Some of Rybczynski's other themes cannot be verified so easily by material evidence, and indeed seem to have shaky underpinnings as history. Several of them are discussed in his concluding chapter, "The Problem of Leisure." Rybczynski begins the chapter by referring to a 1919 study by a Hungarian psychiatrist suggesting that certain neuroses were caused by the weekend freedom from normal patterns of behavior. It is a convenient peg on which to hang the chapter, but is significant historically only if we know if such "holiday neuroses" were very widespread. Rybczynski doesn't tell us. He then dips into Eliade for an explanation of sacred times and spaces, illustrating it with the example of the Navajo hogan, and suggests that the appeal of the weekend is due to "a resonance with some ancient inclination, buried deep in the human psyche." This seems unconvincing to me; perhaps it is because I can think of no way to test it using the material culture and historical documents with which I am familiar.

6 But Rybczynski did not set out to write a work of history. As he himself acknowledges in his "Notes on Sources" (and it is a pity he didn't use footnotes), the book is more in the nature of an extended essay than a work of research. It is very much written with the attitude of the 1990s and the author often seems to select historical facts to accord with his observations of late twentieth century people rather than letting the facts dictate his conclusions. Nevertheless, testing his conclusions against historical evidence, both documentary and material, can give one a fresh perspective on the past.