Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Praise Of SlowIn Praise Of Slow by Carl Honoré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Speed Reading

I read this book quickly. It dealt with the most important issues very efficiently. It was a good use of my time.

Therein lies the issue, or more precisely why I can only give it four, not five, stars.

The book originated in a series of articles Carl Honore wrote for the “National Post”.

It’s well-researched, well thought out, well structured, tells a good story, makes good use of relevant quotations, it’s never boring (though once I’d worked all of this out, I was glad when the end was in sight).

Ultimately, it is a consummate work of journalism, but it is not the work of deeper philosophical analysis I was hoping for.

This is a product of my expectations, rather than the author’s delivery.

I suspect that the book achieved everything the author, the publisher and the National Post expected of it.

The Bad News

For the last two or three centuries (since the Industrial Revolution), something has been happening without us thinking about it:

“We have developed an inner psychology of speed, of saving time and maximizing efficiency.”

“…we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts…”

We view “speed as a sign of control and efficiency”.

Milan Kundera uses the language of narcotics to describe the “ecstasy of speed…the sense of rush it gives”.

In the words of Carrie Fisher, once an imbiber of alcohol, even “instant gratification takes too long.”

When it comes to food, we “gobble, gulp and go”.

We have joined "the cult of speed", we've been worshipping “the false god of speed”. We’re suffering from acceleration and “time-sickness”.

A few decades ago, the same problem was defined as “stress”, and that probably sold a lot of books for a lot of authors and publishers.

Back then, the cure was supposed to be “Stress Management”.

It probably made a lot of money for counselors and management consultants.

Did the cure work? I don’t think so. The problem only seems to have gotten worse.

Time Wars

Honore describes the two different approaches (Fast and Slow) in the following manner:

“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.”

“Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.”

“Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical…Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative.”

The Good News

The good news is that there is a Slow Movement that is trying to address the problem now.

The Movement addresses the problem of Speed in a number of aspects of society (life generally, food, cities, health, medicine, love and sex, work, leisure, child-rearing and education), the common thread being its desire to slow things down.

What it is seeking is a balance, the ability to do things at the “tempo giusto” (the right speed), the right to do things in our “Eigenzeit” (our own time):

“What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos.”

The new tempos sound great. Honore describes “a little oasis of slowness,” “slow pleasure”, “quiet material pleasure”, “erotic deceleration” (yeah, baby).

These quotations might make it sound like the book is all about sex, but that’s not the case.

If anything, it’s about approaching all aspects of life with a fresh intensity, vivaciousness and sensuality.

For all our speed, we have lost our vividness, we’ve been worn out and worn down, we’ve lost our touch.

Some argue that we should “do fewer things in order to do them better”.

Honore even remarks with some hint of envy that Albert Einstein was "famous for spending ages staring into space" (ironically, discovering that the speed of light is a constant, very fast, perhaps the fastest).

Others argue that we should just do things more slowly, more sensuously.

It’s not a race (to the death).

It's just that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.

Time as an Abstract

Early in the book, even though there is a discussion of clocks and time-keeping (“the clock gives us our bearings”), I started to wonder about the nature of time.

Does time exist? Is it a thing? Does it pass? Can we ever have enough of it? Can we ever run out of it?

We only have a sense of time, because we measure it against something else, the movement of the sun, the ticking of a clock, the distance travelled by a moving object.

It’s these other things that move and measure time, not time itself.

Yet we seem to have created such a rod for our own backs.

What would happen if we slowed down? We wouldn’t explode. We wouldn’t implode.

What would happen is that we wouldn’t achieve as much of this other stuff as we wanted to.

We wouldn’t do as much in the allotted “time”. We wouldn’t make or acquire as much of the other stuff in the allotted “time”.

Greed, Not Speed

I started to wonder whether time and speed aren’t the problem, it’s actually our expectations of these other things, the stuff we’re trying to stuff into time.

Time is the bag and these other things are the measure of our greed.

Why don’t we need less in our bag? Why don’t we know when enough is enough?

Is the perceived problem of time actually a problem determining priorities?

Honore comes close when he cites the following comment by an academic:

“You need to take time to think about what is really important, rather than trying to figure out how to pack as much as you can into the shortest possible schedule.”

For a long time, we have wanted to have everything, and now we want to do everything...ironically, for a long time.

Money restrains the first aspiration, “time” restrains the second.

But I started to feel that it’s not time that is the problem, it’s our aspirations, our ambition, our greed.

In a way, we waste our time on what we don’t have or haven’t done yet.

We don’t give what we already have (or have already done) enough time or, more importantly, enough respect.

We don’t respect time.

You can see it in the way we eat. We race to the end of a meal so we can continue whatever else we were doing (or continued to do while we ate).

We don’t respect our meal or the passion or love that went into its creation.

We don’t respect our time together and what we could achieve with this time.

To paraphrase Saul Bellow (who Honore quotes), we don’t respect and value “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.”


The message of the book is to slow down or to modulate your speed or to find the right speed for you in the moment.

Nowhere does it suggest that we should actually stop, except to the extent it discusses meditation.

The Slow Movement must still be a movement of some kind. It must move. It cannot come to a grinding halt. It cannot go the whole hog and slow to a stop. It cannot slow to a stop and then “stay the whole hog”.

If there is a flaw in the Slow Movement, it is this, that it is not radical enough.

As much as the message of the Movement and the book appeals to me, ultimately it preaches moderation.

Everybody is different. There are different strokes (of the clock) for different folks.

Everything is relative. Nothing is wrong. Perhaps, then, nothing will change.

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