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Slow down and enjoy.


The average working parent spends twice as long dealing with e-mail as playing with her children. American adults devote, on average, a lousy half-hour a week to making love. Rushed diners pay their bill and order their taxi while eating dessert.

Canadian journalist Carl Honore makes point after point, couching his research in such lucid prose that you read faster and faster, eager to reach the next point of agreement, zooming along from insight to insight until--wham! You see the trap too late. You're so hooked by the cult of speed, you'll gobble a book on slowness.

Honore knows. He suffers from the malady himself.

He started researching this book when he caught himself leaping at the notion of one-minute bedtime stories for his toddler. As remedy, he traveled through Japan, North America and Europe, especially Italy, home of the Slow Food, Slow City and Slow Sex movements. He weaves his research and reflection with journalistic anecdotes so vivid you can feel the tantric tingling, taste the creamy artisan cheese--and imagine what it might be like to live at tempo giusto, choosing the right pace for each moment.

"Some things cannot, should not, be sped up," Honore writes. "When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections.... All the things that bind us together and make life worth living community, family, friendship thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time."

What started this frantic, white-rabbity fretting? It's easy to blame digital culture, but one of the book's most startling gifts is historical perspective. In 200 B.C., the Roman playwright Plautus wrote:

"The Gods confound the man who first found out

"How to distinguish the hours-confound him, too

"Who in this place set up a sundial

"To cut and hack my days so wretchedly

"Into small pieces!"

Sundials, stopwatches, palm pilots: mechanical and now digital metronomes that keep us all marching to the same relentless drummer. Add Americans' sense of individual entitlement and greedy competitiveness, and you begin to understand the white rabbit. As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, "He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp and to enjoy it."

We cram in as many experiences and as much stuff as possible, writes Honore, and we end up with "a gnawing disconnect between what we want from life and what we can realistically have, which feeds the sense that there is never enough time."

We're "timesick," in other words, convinced that time is escaping us and we have to go faster and faster to keep up. Hence the escalating insanity, because "when everyone takes the fast option, the advantage of going fast vanishes, forcing us to go faster still." Soon we rely on speed even to Solve the problems speed itself has created. Falling behind at work? Get a faster Internet connection. Speed speeds ahead, releasing ecstatic spurts of epinephrine and norepinephrine that can even be physiologically addictive.

The result? "The chronic frustration that bubbles just below the surface of modern life," says Honore "Anyone or anything that steps in our way, that slows us down, that stops us from getting exactly what we want when we want it, becomes the enemy."

He adds--but passes over too swiftly--Milan Kundera's insight: Speed also helps us block out the horror and barrenness of the modern world. It allows us "to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory."

Or perhaps that's just a bittersweet European perspective, and Americans have been too good at denim to accumulate any memories that beg forgetting. Instead, we accumulate irony: Swanson's home-wrecking TV dinner, for example, looks glacially slow today, requiring 25 long minutes in a preheated oven.

Honore is his best when he conjures the opposite joys: leisure, artful cooking and other achingly slow physical pleasures; work and play in one's own natural rhythm; civilized cities where people do not dart and rush in rude neuroticism. He gives example after example of the Slow Movement in its various manifestations, implying that in their political urgency, we will find our salvation.

His continued insistence feels, to me, a bit labored: part wishful thinking, part marketing hook, part "theme" tying the book together for the editor's sake. Honore also slips like a river otter into fluid generalizations: He links, for example, the boom in Buddhism with the boom in evangelical fundamentalism and attributes both to a craving for slowness.

If we break "slowness" into 100 nuanced variations on serenity and certainty, perhaps.

But Honore redeems his breeziness by opening real windows on the stale old complaints of busyness and breakneck pace. And then he asks the most important question of all: In contemporary Western culture, "to what extent is slowing down a luxury for the affluent?" Organic food costs more. Artisan anything costs more.

In Praise of Slowness is persuasive, alarming and reassuring all at once. Toward the end, Honore imparts easy, appealing, impossible advice: "Try to think about time not as a finite resource that is always draining away, or as a bully to be feared or conquered, but as the benign element we live in."

Then he goes and tells his son a long, long bedtime story.

[Jeannette Cooperman is a columnist for NCR. She writes from St. Louis.]
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Title Annotation:Book Review; In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed
Author:Cooperman, Jeannette
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 3, 2004
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