For thousands of years the human race toiled without being able to look forward to the weekend, which wasn't ''invented'' until 1879. In that year an English magazine, obviously unaware of the momentous implications of its discovery, noted placidly that when someone goes somewhere after finishing work on Saturday afternoon and stays until Sunday evening, ''he is said to be spending his weekend at So-and-so.'' In the 20th century, as the five-day work week came in and people began leaving for So-and-so on Friday afternoon, the weekend as we know it was upon us, and now we're all under the obligation to ''have a nice weekend'' whether we want one or not. In this brisk survey of modern leisure called Waiting for the Weekend, Witold Rybczynski wonders whether we are too intent on making the most of our weekends to salvage some relaxation from them.
Rybczynski, an architecture professor at McGill University in Montreal whose previous excursion into the vagaries of the everyday was a book called Home, is annoyed by the earnestness that has seeped into our free time as we fight traffic to get someplace where the traffic thins, or hunt down sale items at the mall, or make sacrifices to the insatiable lawn god, or labor at having methodical, certifiable fun. ''People used to 'play' tennis,'' he remarks, ''now they 'work' on their backhand.'' Formerly devil-may-care pastimes are now bedeviled by ''the need to have the proper equipment and the correct costume (especially the right shoes).''
There's something to this, of course the pace of the weekend has accelerated with the rest of the week. The wonders (and blunders) of modern technology have given us so many clamorous possibilities that we rush around frantically trying to satisfy them all, like a waitress in a crowded restaurant. Still, Rybczynski exaggerates the difference between present and past. Middle-class leisure has always been surrounded on all sides by propriety, status, and conscientious improvement. Amateur sports, often prodded by betting, have generally been fiercely competitive. Our skiing and computer games are no more intense than gambling, poker, and chess have always been.
Rybczynski borrows his ideal of leisure from G.K. Chesterton it's about freedom, above all the freedom to do nothing, to be aimless, idle, and playful, to get lost in reverie, to consider the lilies. It's a good ideal, but not necessarily a popular one. If people once preferred, on the whole, to gape at cockfights and sword swallowers, they now prefer to gape at TV (there's a fine passage here on the anesthetic effects of prolonged TV watching). Rybczynski's better as historian than as sage telling us how this odd slice of time, the week, got started; why our days are named after pagan gods; why, when we congratulate ourselves on having more free time than our ancestors, we are being nearsighted; and how work and leisure, once mixed up together, got divorced. This is at its frequent best an enchanting book, and it can be read in a single weekend. B+