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Recently read: In Praise of Slowness

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]


Posted on December 7, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Carl Honoré In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed

Honoré doesn’t actually write in praise of slowness. “Slow” and its cognates are used by Honoré and many of the people he interviews to refer to doing things at the right speed. Take food, for example, where the slow movement—according to Honoré there actually is such a thing—is supposed to have gotten its start. Obviously a proponent of slow cooking is not going to insist that you sear a steak over several hours. This is something that needs to be done quickly to be done at all. But not everything needs to be seared; some of the best food takes a lot of time; and many people have gotten too rushed to slow down and take that time. So the slow movement is so-called, not because it wants people to mindlessly reduce the speed at which they do things, but because when people with hectic lives apply a corrective to their behaviour, it’s usually by slowing down things that they’re doing too quickly.

But slowness is more than that, apparently. At times, what Honoré seems to be describing is deliberateness, or thoughtfulness, or what a lot of people refer to nowadays as mindfulness. Or something. Since people doing things mindfully tend to really think about the consequences of their behaviour, then, slowness also comes to encompass a lot of other things like, for example, organic food. But it’s even more than that!
In this book, Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. 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.

Honoré explores this theme, such as it is, through subjects like food, medicine, work, sex, raising children, and so on.

I got this book out of the library because I thought it looked like an interesting meditation on how we spend our time, and how we might reorganize it to spend it more thoughtfully. It’s not. It’s a thinly researched, cliche-ridden, flight-magazine-article of a book. The author jumps around disjointedly from one topic to another in a way that becomes mindnumbingly formulaic by about the second chapter. Here’s the formula:
Nowadays, we engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] with breathtaking speed! I found a statistic in a book once that seems to support this. In Japan, we find this trend even more pronounced. In the past, it was common to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly. So-and-so once remarked that [insert little quotation and/or dubious or thinly researched factoid]. To be sure, in the past not everyone took such a leisurely approach [insert another factoid or quotation intended to immunize against counterexamples]. Still, it was indeed common to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] at less than a dizzying pace. Nowadays, more and more people are choosing to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly. [omit evidence for this claim.] Indeed, increasingly people are turning to alternatives. [flimsy evidence for this claim.] To see whether this was worth the trouble, I enrolled in 3 days of a 10 day program touting the efficacy of X. It seemed to work! To get a better sense of what this was all about, I spoke to Y, who has recently rearranged her life around this new approach. She tells me her friends and family tell her that it seemed to work! That’s why increasingly people are choosing to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly.

The basic problem with this book is that the author is trying to tackle a sociologically interesting subject, or set of subjects, but is simply unwilling to, well, slow down and take the time to research them properly and then write fluently about them. This is unfortunate. Every once in a while the author is willing to complicate his theme in a way that suggests the possibility of a more interesting approach, or stumbles briefly onto an especially interesting path. These moments led me to think that there was a better book somewhere in here struggling to get out. But it didn’t, and so this book is not recommended.

Comments


Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2008-12-07

I also don’t get the analytical/reflective distinction. Perhaps this means that I am too analytical and not reflective enough? Also, if ‘reflective’ means anything, doesn’t it mean something different from ‘intuitive’? Yet both ‘intuitive’ and ‘reflective’ are supposed to be indicators of slowness? Quoi?



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-12-08

Steve, increasingly people are more and more coming to see that dubious factoids support lumping analytical skills with speed. To see whether there was anything to this, I spoke to the friend of a friend who told me that when her life was busier she was more into analyzing things. Quick! On to the next topic!



Author: DC
Date: 2008-12-09

Milan Kundera has a novel called “Slowness”. I have read this novel - possibly too quickly - and don’t remember much about it now.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-12-09

Kundera’s book was mentioned in this book.

One of my hobbies is trying to convince people that Milan Kundera sucks. It’s fun. If you watch closely you can actually see a sort of light die in their eyes.



Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2008-12-09

That last comment, right there? That is terrific.

I feel bad for having read a lot when I was younger and having not written reviews, because now I just don’t have the arsenal to come to Kundera’s defense. I read “The Joke” back then, and “The Unthinkable Touchiness of Czechs” or whatever it’s called. I seem to recall their being good books. I remember that they had something to do with kitsch, in a certain totalitarian sense of kitsch. Like, kitsch isn’t just tchotchkes; it’s the whole way in which people are forced to feel regimented emotion within a totalitarian state. Something like this. I can’t remember much more about it, and come to think of it I’m pretty sure it was just a long lecture channeled through the mouths of its protagonists while they have lustless sex. But I could be wrong.

A friend right now is reading “East of Eden,” which I adored at the time. But I can’t remember a goddamn thing about it now. Er, one thing: it recapitulates the Cain-and-Abel story through several generations of the Trask family. That’s literally all I can remember about EoE. Which saddens me: at the time I loved that book, and now my friend says he’s pretty sure it’s the best book he’s ever read (!). I also loved “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I read somewhat after EoE, but … yeah, I remember nothing at all about TGoW. Nothing at all.

Damn.



Author: DC
Date: 2008-12-09

Oh I thought Unbearable Lightness was completely fantastic, and the Book of Laughter and Forgetting was good too and I’m about to start the Joke. I think I was dissapointed with Slowness and with Identity but I read them in French so I thought maybe that was the problem.

I did have some nagging fear that maybe a person who was better read in fiction than me would see through Unbearable Lightness of Being somehow.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-12-09

I read through most (all?) of Kundera’s books up to and including Unbearable Lightness in high school. I remember telling my dad that they were really good. He read Unbearable Lightness, and then pointed out how insipid and shallow Kundera’s view of his characters is. A sort of light died in my eyes. This is the gift my father gave me, and which I try to pass on to others.

The way Kundera tries to blend essay and fiction into a single form is really intriguing. If he could pull it off it would be really extraordinary. But he can’t. It’s ok to have stunted to characters. That can make for some interesting fiction. But the essays make clear that the characters often describe certain limits in Kundera’s appreciation of human beings. The lustless sex is only the start of the problem.

I’ve been meaning to go back and do a big reread to figure out if I’m missing something. Perhaps some day.

East of Eden seems to me like a bunch of other Steinbeck books - awesome in a seriously flawed way. (I still haven’t read Grapes of Wrath.) I read that in high school too, so it was a long time ago. But I still remember being very moved by the final page. I won’t ruin it for anyone by describing any further.

Some pretty fun Steinbeck is Cannery Row. If you haven’t read that, well, you just have to. Tortilla Flat is set in the same place, with many of the same characters. It’s good, but not quite as good as Cannery Row.



Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2008-12-09

Hey, while we’re on the topic of books that are supposed to be good but maybe aren’t: George Packer’s recent review of a V.S. Naipaul biography (see also his blog post previewing the review; the preview got me very excited for the review) reminded me of how very much I loathed Naipaul’s “A Bend In The River.” It seemed lifeless and astringent, and it didn’t surprise me at all that the man was a monster in his personal life.

I actually haven’t been able to get into any books that might be described as “postcolonial.” I’ve tried Naipaul, “Things Fall Apart,” Ghosh’s “Glass Palace,” and a number of others that I can’t remember right now; they all seem really shallow. Maybe they’d do more for me if I were colonized rather than colonizer.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-12-09

I have noticed that you didn’t like “A Bend in the River.” I don’t recall having quite as strong a reaction to it as you, but I do remember feeling that the main character was very cold, somehow. I’ve had “Things Fall Apart” on my to-read list for at least 15 years now. Some day!

Speaking of people who don’t like Naipaul, what do you make of Paul Theroux? I’ve read a couple of his books and come away with the impression that he’s utterly repellent.



Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2008-12-09

Huh. I don’t know a thing about Theroux. I thought I was sad about that. Maybe I’m not sad about that.

Oh, and then there’s Tom Robbins. He has one idea, repeated over many books. Back when I was an impressionable youth, I really enjoyed Jitterbug Perfume. The same friend who’s reading East of Eden read Jitterbug Perfume not long ago, and disabused me of my flawed memories.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-12-09

Evil commenter/villain Kegri repeatedly insisted that I read Tom Robbins when we were both 19 years old and living together in Munich for a summer. I finally gave in and did. It was really awful.

Did you know that love is . . . oh, I can’t even remember. Something cliched.



Author: DC
Date: 2008-12-10

The only Naipaul I’ve read is Half a Life and it didn’t do anything for me. Cold stuff certainly. (If I were writing a review I’d use the word dyspeptic, but if I were writing a review I’d also look it up to make sure I was using it right.)

Re: Unbearable Lightness (which i keep on calling/typing as “Eternal Lightness…”), I’m kind of in the opposite boat to Chris in that I read it once, thought it was fantastic but also had a nagging feeling that I needed to read it again after a while to see if I felt it stood up. Must do that.