Waiting for the Weekend by Witold RybczynskiViking, 1991

Despite the title, and despite the fact that much of this book tells the story of how the weekend as we know it came into being, Waiting for the Weekend isn’t just about Saturday and Sunday and how they got that way. It also examines larger questions of leisure: what is leisure, anyhow? And how do work and leisure and recreation and play interrelate? To start with an answer: leisure, as Rybczynski defines it, is not “an antidote to work”—that would be recreation, which “carries with it a sense of necessity and purpose” (p 224). Leisure, following the ideas of GK Chesterton, is the freedom to do nothing, but above all the freedom to think and to reflect. So if leisure is the freedom to do nothing, where does leisure fit into the modern weekend, the regularly-scheduled two-day break many of us have, into which we often try to cram as many activities as possible? This is something Rybczynski touches on but doesn’t really answer—the answer being, I guess, that there’s room for leisure if you make room for leisure, though some don’t: “the weekend has imposed a rigid schedule on our free time, which can result in a sense of urgency (“soon it will be Monday”) that is at odds with relaxation” (222). Relatedly, as work becomes less skilled and more service-oriented or clerical, we we end up in a situation where “for many, weekend free time has become not a chance to escape work but a chance to create work that is more meaningful–to work at recreation–in order to realize the personal satisfactions that the workplace no longer offers” (225).

In writing about what leisure is and how free time came to be parceled out into Saturdays and Sundays, Rybczynski writes a lot about the history of the week and the history of the weekend, all of which is really interesting precisely because it’s the sort of thing that many tend to take for granted. As Rybczynski puts it: “Because my free time was personally enjoyed, I imagined that it was personally regulated, but this was not quite so. True, I did what I thought I wanted, but certainly not when I wanted; I dutifully arranged my recreations to fall in step with the regularly scheduled weekend intermissions that were accorded me. Not that I felt this was an imposition. It was done so automatically, it seemed so normal, that I never gave the presence of the weekend a second thought—it was simply the way life was” (10). But this isn’t the way life has always been. For one thing, the seven-day week isn’t the only way that we could divide our time: unlike the year or the month or the day, the week has no astronomical significance. And there were plenty of ancient calendars that had repeating periods of something other than seven days. The ancient Egyptian calendar had ten-day periods related to the fact that the stars the Egyptians used for night-time timekeeping changed at ten-day intervals. The Athenians had ten-day divisions in their calendar as well. The Romans had special days with irregular spacing— the first of the month, the fifth or seventh of the month, and the thirteenth or fifteenth of the month. The Chinese calendar involved a 60-day repeating period, and so on through a number of other times and places. By the time of the Julian calendar, Jews had long used a seven-day calendar, but its origin isn’t known. And the seven-day week wasn’t an original feature of the Julian calendar, but it was adopted not that long after. Because there isn’t any written record of a reason for its adoption (no edict from the Roman emperor, no debate among scholars), the guess is that the seven-day week was adopted as a matter of superstition, because the ancients saw seven moving “planets” in the sky and assigned each one to a day, which resulted in a seven-day cycle.

From the origins of the week, Rybczynski talks about different kinds of special days, days on which certain activities—including but not limited to work—are proscribed: a concept that has recurred in cultures and places from ancient Egypt to Judaism to the South Seas—and then talks about the idea of Sunday as taking something from this sort of “tabooed” day, but also being a celebratory holy day, more or less celebratory in different cultures at different times. So how did the special day of Sunday (for British Christians) turn into the weekend? Partly, it was due to prosperity. Of the 18th century, Rybczynski writes: “For the first time in their lives, many workers earned more than survival wages. Now they had choices: they could buy goods or leisure. They could work more and earn more, or they could forgo the extra wages and enjoy more free time instead. Most chose the latter course. This was especially true for the highly paid skilled workers, who had the most economic freedom, but even general laborers, who were employed at day rates, had a choice in the matter” (112). He goes on to note that “Whenever people had a choice in the matter, however, work was characterized by an irregular mixture of days on and days off” (113). Over time, though, there emerged a pattern of “keeping Saint Monday,” i.e. not working on Mondays (in part to recover from Sunday drinking), a pattern that was stronger in some trades than others. At the same time, railway travel was becoming more widespread, and short getaways by train were being marketed to the public. This, combined with opposition to the “Saint Monday” custom and the Sunday drinking that went with it, led to a push for Saturday to be made a half-holiday in Britain. The Saturday half-holiday familiar in Britain was adopted, later, by the US: a sentence like this was surprising to me because I’d had no idea that office-workers used to work on Saturdays: “By the 1930s, most offices in New York City closed their doors at noon on Saturday” (p 135). And from there, the conceptual jump to a full weekend isn’t long.

After focusing mainly on the UK and the US at first, Rybczynski shifts the discussion to the adoption of the two-day weekend elsewhere, including Solidarity-era Poland, Fascist Italy, and Japan. He talks, too, about pastimes and about weekend “retreats,” country campgrounds/trailer parks where working-class families go for the weekend in the summer, and the long heritage of the idea of an escape from the city—from Pliny’s countryside villas to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. These last chapters sometimes feel like they’re not so well-connected to the ones that came before, but that’s a small criticism for a book that, on the whole, is pretty pleasing.

(Hey, look, this is the fifth book I’ve finished from my list for Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge!)





7 responses to “Waiting for the Weekend by Witold RybczynskiViking, 1991”

  1. gracia Avatar

    Ah, yes, leisure time. Working from home in my own hours, my leisure time is a little more flexible and I enjoy being able to go to places that on the weekend would be too crowded for my liking.

  2. Heather Avatar

    Going places during off-hours is so delicious; sometimes when you go to a place that’s normally crowded but isn’t when you’re there, it feels like this magic gift or some other place entirely. I went to the beach at 4:30 pm on a Tuesday the other week and it was refreshing – still plenty of people there, but nothing near as crowded as when I was last there on a weekend. (I work Monday-Friday and mostly 9-5 but not quite: I have a few days a week where I work 7-3, which is a schedule that I didn’t choose but that suits me quite nicely.)

  3. Jenny Avatar

    Interesting! I always try to make the most of my leisure time on weekends by scheduling all my activities for one of the two weekend days; and then on the other day, I just lie about and relax. It’s nice!

  4. Heather Avatar

    Jenny, that does sound nice! My ideal weekends definitely include some solid relaxation/doing-nothing-much time, but I feel like I can’t really generalize beyond that – depends on the weather/my mood/what’s going on. Sometimes one day = a 10-20 mile walk and the other day = relaxing, sometimes both days = basically staying around home or in my immediate neighborhood relaxing/reading/cooking/running errands; sometimes I get up early, sometimes I don’t, etc. (THIS weekend I am excited about because Saturday is going to be a day of picnicking + reading + my first-ever flying trapeze class. But that’s another topic entirely!)

  5. […] for me.)  I’ve also been enjoying the long-form reviews over at letters and sodas.  In a recent post, Heather linked to Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge – basically, a challenge to […]

  6. Nathalie Avatar

    I just wrote a review for Briarpatch Magazine of four books about work. If this is a topic you enjoyed reading about, I recommend Alain de Botton’s The Sorrows and Pleasures of Work and Richard Donkins’s The History of Work (also published as Blood Sweat and Tears). Donkins writes history really well, and he’s thorough and engaging. de Botton’s book is a collection of essays, some admiring and some caustically cynical. He has a great chapter about pylons! Both writers take on the history of the Protestant work ethic and its hold on our sense of work and leisure.

  7. Heather Avatar

    Nathalie, thanks – The Sorrows and Pleasures of Work has been on my to-read list since it came out, but I haven’t gotten to it yet – it’s good to be reminded that it’s out there! I read and loved The Art of Travel and have been meaning to read more by Alain de Botton since I read it, but I haven’t, yet.

    And I hadn’t head of the book by Donkins at all – I will have to check it out.

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