Free time, as a concept, is both the most obviously mundane concept as it is obscure. We talk and read about it so often, but what part of our lives are actually ruled by the idea of “free time”? Would you consider yourself as having a lot of it or rather very little? And if you think you belong to the latter, as having very little free time, does that mean you still get to read the press? Or a book? Or see your friends? Or see that exposition everyone is talking about? Or are you just thinking about how you do not get to laze around in the park counting clouds or the freckles on your lover’s face?
To help us understand what “free time” is in our lives, let us take a famous author to see how he uses it. I propose we look at Murakami’s work. Not because the topic interests him specifically, but you will see that that makes it all the more interesting. Perhaps the most common usage, I think, crops up in this quote, from Kafka on the Shore:
“I was a writer then, with no money worries and plenty of free time, so I could mostly do whatever sparked my interest.” (p.234)
Here free time is understood as the time you are not working. This sounds perfectly reasonable, until you consider that if his free time is used for the benefit of his work (writing), we would already have a vagueness in the notion. This vagueness, or “free time” as a part of work, comes back in Norwegian Wood:
“(…) and so I went to my lectures each day, took notes, and spent my free time in the library reading or looking things up.” (p.59)
Of course we know what he means, “free” from his classes, but the student is supposed to be studying in the library (or elsewhere) as part of his degree. It is not really “free” time as such. Is it fair to consider a time “free” if you “have” to do it for your activity? Not really. “Free time” is here best characterized as the time you have to do something other than your main activity, it is a time where you enter a “variable use” rather than a “fixed use”. Sounds fair enough, does it not? But now look at this fellow from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he would not count the student’s library use as free time at all:
“I spend seven hours a day at a workbench (…) then I eat dinner in the cafeteria, take a bath, and of course I have to sleep, like everybody else, so out of a twenty-four-hour day, the amount of free time I have is like nothing. And because I’m so tired from work, the “free time” I have I mostly spend lying around in a fog.” (p.266)
Here the notion of “free time” has been extended to include all life sustaining tasks out of work except for sleeping. Is that really the only flexible factor in his life? But even if we included all these tasks (eating and such), what about secondary tasks like cleaning the house, fixing your bicycle, writing to your grandmother? You still have to do those. Is that all supposed to be categorized as your free time? In Dance Dance Dance, someone seems to think free time is the prioritizing of secondary tasks:
“Now that’s making good use of free time. If you don’t have any-thing better to do, go to the barber.” (p.38)
Such a person would find his “free time” completely filled with mundane tasks. He may have free time, but what good is it really. Within that time span, you work down the list of “to-do’s” inversely till you get to counting clouds (which is perhaps never).
But now the curious part comes into play. When you ask someone if they have read a certain book or read about the “AutoLib” project, they may have read it, even if they had almost no “free time”, because it is part of their daily commute, or they read at lunch time. Similarly they may have seen the exhibition, because they combined it with seeing friends. Now you may interject, that surely seeing friends goes too far, that surely classifies as part of your free time! I would agree, although it could be part the “things you had to do”, rather than the “things you wanted to do”, although sometimes that can be debatable. Anything can be an obligation high on the priority list, as we could read back in Kafka on the Shore:
“Because I had tons of things to take care of, including spending a lot of my free time devouring books in the school library.” (p.5)
Yes, free time does not have to mean that you can do what you want to, as you may have a lot of things you have to do. A lot of context is required to understand somebody’s free time, but either way it may not teach you very much. No free time does not have to mean that they did not read it, just as much as a lot of free time does not have to mean that they did. But what we can say for certain, is that people with a lot of “free time” may not actually have any time to spare, but they are more flexible at arranging their tasks. If they are in love, they will be the ones counting the freckles on your nose…