Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Praise of Slowness

In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed
© Carl Honoré 2004
310 pages

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I have been living philosophically for over a year now, and as time passes I am attracted more and more to a life that is quiet, gentle, simple, and slow. This is facilitated by the university town I live in that allows such a life -- a life where I linger for long hours in the university cafeteria enjoying the company of friends, a life where I am free to simply go for a walk around a beautiful town any time I feel like it. I want to live as a free human ought. As my politics become more radical, my sense of spirituality more universal, and my mind more centered, I have found a variety of topics to be of increasing interest -- like the New Urbanism movement, which is intent on making communities “human-sized again”, getting away from ill-considered suburban sprawl. Another is the philosophical and religious concept of “simple living”.

In Praise of Slowness is a book that incorporates simple living, New Urbanism, and the philosophical life into its text. I will summarize as it as being written to make human lives human and livable once more. Where our way of life has reduced us to living passively, consuming unthinkingly, and bouncing from one task to the next without ever really enjoying anything, Slowness asserts that we should slow down and think about what it is we’re doing. This happened to author Carl Honoré in his pre-Slow days: after fuming at every person whose path interrupted his in a busy airport, he was drawn to a store display promising bedtime stories for children that could be told in sixty seconds or less, sparing parents the annoyance of having to sit down and read for their child. In his recollection, he was preparing to order the entire set when he realized that this was going too far. That capitalism, consumerism, suburbanization, industrial agriculture, and other systems in use in our society have gone too far is a common criticism, but is not less valid because of this. As the author writes, people in the United States work too long, drive too fast, turn meals into pit stops, and have allowed life to become nothing more than background noise they are annoyed by while working on to-do lists. Separate chapters cover living arrangements, sex, work, leisure, food, spirituality, medicine, and childrearing. There’s a lot of depth here, because author Carl Honoré is applying the same principle to as much of human life as he can without making the book overly long.

As much as I like the book’s premise, there are signs that some parts of it were written incautiously. There were facts put forth that needed citing and a little too much reliance on anecdotes. The entire chapter on medicine was disappointing. Homeopathy does not work “slow”, it does not work. Perhaps the “medicine model” does need checking -- some matters are more psychological than biological, I would suspect, and a little philosophy would be more effective than a pill -- but evidence-based medicine is still far superior to massages that are meant to let the body’s “energy” move around more freely. What startled me was how true the holistic doctors kept to the descriptions made by them of skeptics like Steven Novella and James Randi who have examined their claims and found them lacking. The tactics they used haven’t changed!

Although the chapter on medicine is quite week, the newage doesn’t spoil the rest of the book: it’s quite localized, as it were, and I can recommend the book on the whole. Just read with a salt-shaker nearby.

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