Book Review: In Praise of Slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed By Carl Honore

 

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In Praise of Slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed By Carl Honore (Orion Books 2004)

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with speed for the majority of my lifetime. However, when I was admitted into a psychiatric ward aged 14 suffering with Anorexia, I was forced to slow down. I had no choice – I was on bedrest. Sadly, when I was discharged almost a year later, I ran to catch up with my old habits, and speed, once again, became an all important factor in my life. Except, funnily enough, with food. I would eat my meals excruciatingly slowly. But that’s a common anorexic trait.

I eventually recovered from my illness, but the obsession with speed remained. Death, in my eyes, was imminent, and I had to get as much done as humanely possible before I crocked. As a result, I was rushing here, there and everywhere, until I picked up this book. In Praise of Slow is Honore’s attempt to wake the world up to the Slow movement, which isn’t about doing everything in the mode of a Sunday driver, but about finding a balance. It has proved to be the wakeup call I needed, and since completing it, I’ve adapted my life in little ways, and have started to reap the benefits. I feel less agitated. I get wound up less easily. I feel my body is benefiting from taking my exercise at a slower pace, and I am most definitely enjoying my food more than ever. I don’t bully myself if I stay in bed for half an hour longer than planned, and I don’t curse the bus driver if he pulls up a few minutes late. I now spend longer than eight minutes preparing a meal, hell, I might even spend up to half an hour preparing something that doesn’t even need to meet the microwave.

This book has helped me to make some monumental changes to my life in a few days. No joke. It was published in 2004 yeah, but the information and advice is still as valid as it was then. I have to admit to something however. When I picked it up, I was still in that ‘doeverthingreallyreallyfast’ mode, and I didn’t read the quote on the back. Yet, I was fortunate enough to do exactly as the quote instructed, which was to read a chapter a day to allow ‘its subversive message to sink slowly in so it has a chance of changing your life.’

‘These days, our culture teaches that faster is better. But in the race to keep up, everything suffers – our work, diet and health, our relationships and sex lives. We are in such a hurry that anyone or anything that slows us down, becomes the enemy. Thanks to our desire for speed, we live in an age of rage.’

In Praise of Slow was a truly fascinating and hugely enjoyable read. Honore examines every main aspect of everyday life, and his thorough investigation and hands on approach was encouraging and extremely interesting, as often he felt the urge to speed up and as the reader, I was there while he fought  to tame those urges and slow…right…down.

A few pages in and I was already stunned (and scared) into changing my behaviour towards work and my mad desire to get everything and the rest done.

‘For a chilling vision of where this behaviour leads, look no further than Japan, where the locals have a word – karoshi – that means ‘death by overwork.’ One of the most famous victims of karoshi was Kamei Shuji, a high-flying broker who routinely put in ninety-hour weeks during the Japanese stock market boom of the late 1980’s…in 1990, he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was twenty six.’

Just until recently, sleep came second to work. But oh, if my younger, more foolish self had known what I do now. But when you’re young, you think you’re invincible. It’s only when you start to pick up books such as this in an effort to make conscious changes to your lifestyle, that shock and realisation pushes you into action.

‘Non sleeping enough can damage the cardiovascular and immune systems, bring on diabetes and heart disease, and trigger indigestion, irritability and depression. Getting less than six hours of kip a night can impair motor coordination, speech, reflexes and judgment.’

‘Inevitably, a life of hurry can become superficial. When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people.’

I wanted to do everything and then some, when I was in college and university, and I would have laughed in the face of any fool who would suggest that performing a task in a Slow manner often yields faster results.

However, in many cases, slow is still an awful word.

‘Just look at how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: ‘not understanding readily, dull, uninteresting, not learning easily, tedious, slack, sluggish.’

In the chapter Food: Turning the tables on speed where Honore describes the horrendous and unbelievable ‘acceleration’ occurring on farms.

‘Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, intensive feeding, antibiotic digestive enhancers, growth hormones, rigorous breeding, genetic modification – every scientific trick known to man had been deployed to cut costs, boost yields and make livestock and crops grow more quickly. Two centuries ago, the average pig took five years to reach 130 pounds; today it hits 220 pounds after just six months and is slaughtered before it loses its baby teeth. 

At one point, a few years back, I made a few trips to the South of France, and experienced the laid back way of life which is, over there, the norm. It took me a while, at least until halfway through my second visit, to fully relax into, and enjoy, the lengthy mealtime which the French are famous for. In the chapter entitled ‘Food: Turning the tables on speed’ Honore takes a trip to Italy, where he meets Vittoria Magnoni, a twenty seven year old member of the Slow Food movement. There’s a particularly lovely part in the chapter where Honore realises just how long he has been sat eating and conversing with his dining companion.

I look at my watch. It is 1.25 AM! I have spent four hours at the table without ever once feeling bored or restless. Time has floated by imperceptibly, like water in a Venetian canal. Perhaps because of that, the meal has turned out to be one of the most memorable of my life.

I am not a city gal, not by a long stretch. Saying that, however, I could live in Copenhagen, (it doesn’t feel like a city at all) or Bergen, and I do have a thing for New York…what am I saying? Okay there are some cities I could not live in, London, for example. I hate London. Simple as that. It’s a horrible place, and I’m always happier on the bus out of the capital than I am on the bus going in. I found myself nodding along with Honore as he made valid point after valid point in the chapter titled ‘Cities: Blending old and new.’  

Everything about urban life – the cacophony, the cars, the crowds, the consumerism – invites us to rush rather than relax or reach out to people. The city keeps us in motion, switched on, constantly in search of the next stimulus. Even as they thrill us, though, we find cities alienating.

‘….cars still dominate the urban landscape. Outside my house in London, both sides of the street are permanently lined with parked vehicles. They form a Berlin Wall that cuts people off from each other – small children are invisible from the other side of the street. With SUVs, cars and vans storming up and down, the pedestrian feels alienated. The whole scene says cars first, people second.’

The chapter I was particularly interested in ‘Mind /Body: Mens sana in corpora sano’ helped me to take stock of my bad habit of insisting on filling every spare second with something.

‘Like a bee in a flower bed, the human brain naturally flits from one through to the next. In the high-speed workplace, where data and deadlines come thick and fast, we are all under pressure to think quickly. Reaction, rather than reflection, is the order of the day. To make the most of our time, and to avoid boredom, we fill up every spare moment with mental stimulation. When did you last just sit in a chair, close your eyes and just relax?

Now when I get on the train for my regular twenty one minute journey, I let myself sit. And that’s it. I don’t yank my book out of my bag, determined to finish a chapter before I arrive at my destination. And you know what? This little ‘breather’ works wonders in bringing down my heart rate and slowing my fast track mind. And anyway, great thinkers and doers knew the value of shifting the mind into low gear.

‘Charle’s Darwin described himself as a “slow thinker.” Albert Einstein was famous for spending ages staring into space in his office at Princeton University.

So how can the rest of us access Slow Thinking, especially in a world that prizes speed and action? The first step is to relax – put aside impatience, stop struggling and learn to accept uncertainty and inaction. Wait for ideas to incubate below the radar, rather than striving to brainstorm them to the surface. Let the mind be quiet and still.

Put basically… ‘When you give your mind a chance to slow down, it can really come up with some good stuff.’

I’ve always been a walker. Nothing makes my blood boil more than seeing people in their cars when the distance they need to travel is easily, easily walkable. Walking is an enormous part of my life. I don’t drive, so count on little legs to take me pretty much everywhere I want to go. I also find that walking helps ideas accumulate, and a while back I started to take my notebook out with me whenever I left the house, due to the fact that the majority of good ideas came when I was pounding the pavements.

‘Walking can help ease the itch to accelerate. In a car, train or plane, where the engine always holds out the promise of more power, more speed, we feel tempted to go faster, and treat every delays as a personal affront….In the words of Edward Abbey… “there are some good things to say about walking…Walking takes longer, for example, than any other form of locomotion except crawling. Thus, it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed…Walking makes the world much bigger and therefore more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”

Exercise. I’m a fan. But I’m an even bigger fan now that I’m doing it slower. Continuing in the Mind/Body chapter, Honore explores SuperSlow, a weightlifting movement that originated in the USA back in the early 80’s.  The founder Ken Hutchins has this to say.

‘People think that unless you’re performing a frenzied activity like aerobics you’re not getting any benefit. But actually the opposite is true. It is the slowness that makes the exercise so productive.’

So, how does it work?

‘A SuperSlow adherent takes twenty seconds to lift and lower a weight, compared to the conventional six seconds. The slowness eliminates momentum, forcing the muscles to work to complete exhaustion. That, in turn, encourages them to rebuild more quickly and thoroughly.’

 

‘Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.’

 – Soren Kierkegaard.

 

The chapter that’ll make everyone sit up a bit straighter is ‘Sex: A lover with a slow hand.’ Honore engages in tantric sex workshops and learns that taking your time with the act is really, really worth it. It was interesting reading about fast sex, however, and apparently it’s not new at all.

‘Fast sex is not a modern invention – it goes way back, and probably has its roots in the survival instinct. In prehistoric days, coupling quickly made our ancestors less vulnerable to attack, either by a wild beast or a rival. Later, culture added extra incentives to hurry the sex act. Some religions taught that intercourse was for procreation rather than recreation: a husband should climb on, do his duty and climb of again.’      

Unsurprisingly, our fast lifestyles are having an adverse effect on our children, and Honore shows many examples in the chapter ‘Children: Raising an unhurried child.’  

‘Children increasingly pay a price for leasing rushed lives. Kids as young as five now suffer  from upset stomachs, headaches, insomnia, depression and eating disorders brought on by stress.’

It came as no surprise to me when Honore bought up the topic of  schools in Scandinavia.

‘Countries that take a Slower approach to education are already reaping the benefit. In Finland, children enter pre-school education at the age of six, and formal schooling at seven….Finland routinely tops the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s prestigious world rankings for educational performance and literacy.’

As a ‘Steiner Kid,’ I wasn’t surprised to find Rudolf Steiner mentioned.

‘ In interwar Germany, Rudolf Steiner pioneered a brand of education that is the polar opposite of accelerated learning. Steiner believed that children should never be rushed into studying things before they are ready, and he was against teaching them to read before their seventh birthday. Instead, he believed they should spend their early years playing, drawing, telling stories and learning about nature.’

Honore ends ‘In Praise of Slow’ by talking about finding balance, something which I have struggled with for most of my life. What this book has taught me is that it is okay to go slower. It is okay to take your time. It is okay to daydream – that’s when the best ideas and thoughts come anyway.

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