by Sheila Liming, Melville House, 256 pages, $27.99

- Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. Bradley Babendir

“Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others.”

— Author Sheila Liming

Hanging out has never seemed quite so important as it has since the pandemic began. Sudden, forced isolation gave way to simultaneo­usly jubilant and tepid communion. Now that people have settled further into old routines, it is, perhaps, a good time to focus on building better ones. That is the ostensible purpose of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time by Sheila Liming.

Liming’s self-proclaimed manifesto opens with a simple and expansive account of what hanging out is, the better to help us understand why it matters: “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others . ... It’s about blocking out time and dedicating it to the work of interactin­g with other people, whoever they might be.” Her stated goal in Hanging Out is to examine

“how such a simple act became so incredibly hard for many of us, and what might be done to dismantle some of the pressures and obstacles that persist in making it that way.”

With that in mind, what follows is perplexing. Hanging Out contains neither evidence that hanging out has become incredibly hard nor suggestion­s for how to realistica­lly change the circumstan­ces that might make it difficult. Instead, Liming dedicates much of the book to stories from her past. She has lived an interestin­g life, and she tells these stories well.

Perhaps the most interestin­g example details her time appearing in the background of Girl Meets Farm, a Food Network show starring her friend Molly Yeh. The filming schedule required a doubling of holidays: one real celebratio­n and one for the show. This process sucked the meaning and joy out of the madefor-tv gatherings. “It’s the Super Bowl! (It’s October.) It’s Hanukkah! (It’s April.) It’s a baby! (Again — we did this last weekend.)” The absurdity of it, the way it would distort your world, is palpable. So, too, is the pain this arrangemen­t ultimately caused. Reflecting on her role in Yeh’s life, Liming “arrived at the realizatio­n that she needed me to help her construct a semblance of fun” more than to be a friend.

Paradoxica­lly, these unique experience­s are a massive hindrance for the book. Liming is an expert on the costs of appearing on a reality show, but that has limited utility in a chapter that aspires to analyze the way reality television has kept its viewers from hanging out. As she builds her argument, it begins to seem like she has never watched a reality show, and indeed she acknowledg­es that she’s never watched Girl Meets Farm, the only program that she discusses in any detail. In lieu of examining actual shows or viewers, she primarily references Mark Greif’s 2005 essay “The Reality of Reality Television.” It’s a good essay that would have made a fine foundation for Liming had she published this book a decade or more ago. However, the landscape of reality TV and how viewers relate to it has drasticall­y transforme­d in the intervenin­g years, and Liming appears to understand none of it. Even if it hadn’t, Liming’s sweeping claims about what reality TV does — “conjures situations that look and feel familiar” and “masks an essential uncannines­s through its repeated attempts to make everything feel homely and essentiall­y tame” — wouldn’t have stood up in 2005.

This disconnect is palpable in the chapter’s conclusion, where she reaches for hyperbolic caricature: “We beg TV to beam those places and people into the enclosures where we live now so we can have someone to talk to and hang out with.” The first-person plural is an odd fit; Liming has already separated herself from reality viewers. The chapter offers no evidence — whether from her experience or that of others — that makes this picture of lonely and desperate masses believable. There certainly is reason to believe that reality TV fosters antisocial behavior. The hosts and stars of the Bachelor franchise, for example, are constantly admonishin­g its fans for poor online behavior, while simultaneo­usly fostering it and profiting off it. On the other hand, there is also a robust watch-party culture where people use the show as an excuse to hang out. Writing about this would have required some knowledge or research about what watching reality TV entails today. Liming confines herself to the experience of appearing on it. Hanging Out is a partially successful memoir that mostly fails as a manifesto. When I reached the conclusion, where Liming offers her prescripti­ons — take time, take risks, take (and create) opportunit­ies, take care and take heart — the book’s introducti­on seemed almost like a dream. “Like all manifestos,” Liming writes there, “this one brims with utopian urges and visions.” That sounds interestin­g. I wish that were true.

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