Monday, December 11, 2006

In Praise of Slow


In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore (Orion 2004).

A rugby-playing London trader gardens to control his stress. France mandates a 35-hour work week. A vocal minority of classical musicians performs famous works at half the customary speed. A small Italian city bans vehicle traffic on its cobblestone downtown streets.

All of these are examples of Slow, writes journalist Carl Honore in his book In Praise of Slow. Slow is a movement, manifesting itself in changes in food and education and even sex, which seeks to counter the "velocitization" of life.

"In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, 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," Honore writes.

Work is the greatest offender. We work longer, faster, harder -- and other aspects of life suffer. And we do it mainly to finance the purchase of trinkets we don't need and rarely use. "Everyone needs to earn a living," Honore writes, "but the endless hunger for consumer goods means that we need more and more cash. So instead of taking productivity gains in the form of extra time off, we take them in higher income."

The philosophy of Slow seeks to recapture our control over time, whether in the form of three-hour dinners that take all day to cook or speed bumps near the farmers' market. Slow does not mean that people should do everything slowly; it means that everyone should have the option of determining their speed at any given moment. "Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for," Honore writes.

Honore is aware of the criticism that the external manifestations of Slow -- e.g., organic produce and long, free-form vacations -- can be expensive, but he argues that Slow is not a gated community for burnt-out yuppies. "Spending more time with friends and family costs nothing. Nor does walking, cooking, meditating, making love, reading or eating dinner at the table instead of in front of the television. Simply resisting the urge to hurry is free."

Honore makes his strongest and weakest arguments in the context of children. No doubt, the parents who program every hour of their children's lives with enrichment activities are doing their children a disservice. I've always suspected that turning six-year-olds into rigorously scheduled appointment-keepers has more to do with being perceived as a good parent than with actually being one. As a friend of mine said when his daughter was born, "The challenge isn't to be a perfect parent. The challenge is to be a reasonable parent."

But the parents in Honore's discussion of high-powered elementary schooling opted to send their kids to less turbo-charged government schools -- which simply isn't an option in many cities. Particularly in the United States, government schools, especially high schools, can be poor academic performers with physically dangerous environments. Those jurisdictions with good schools tend to have the costliest homes. So, in terms of education for their kids, parents tend to get what they can afford to buy.

Honore completely misses the role of college admissions in driving the "hyper-parenting" culture. Parents and their children become convinced that a frenzy of superficial participation in a smorgasbord of academic, extracurricular and community service activities is what selective colleges want in applicants -- and they're right. Honore quotes from the "Slow Down" letter sent to all incoming Harvard College freshmen, with its avuncular advice to "gradually spend more of your time on fewer things you discover you truly love." But no one who did that in high school would have a chance of admission to Harvard or any other highly selective university.

Ultimately, Honore's attempt to document a movement of Slow isn't so much unsuccessful as unsatisfying -- like wolfing down a Big Mac. Honore's method of proof is heavily anecdotal. I am confident that all of the people he discusses exist and that they have changed their lives as reported, but I suspect that they are a minority. People talk about downshifting their lives, but it's always something to be done later, after accumulating a nest egg or after the kids move out or after retirement. Currently, the King of Speed sits safely on his throne.

Here's some anecdotal proof: As I write this, Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals is the 56th best-selling book on Amazon. In Praise of Slow is ranked 43,241.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous toulouse said...

"Spending more time with friends and family costs nothing. Nor does ... making love."

Paul, I'd be interested to know, have you found this to be true during the last five months?

8:35 AM  

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