“In praise of slow” by Carl Honoré.

Honoré is a Canadian journalist living in London. In the year 2000 standing in an airport queue he realised his whole life was lived at breakneck speed. The catalyst for this thought was the advert he saw for condensed children’s books (that you can read in 1 minute). As the queue snaked forward he put down his newspaper and decided he’d gone completely insane. He and everyone he knew were dominated by what he calls the “cult of speed”. The book came out of his desire if not to slow down completely, then rebalance his life. After a chapter looking at why we should slow down the book smoothly moves through the following areas of living; Food, Cities, Mind and Body, Medicine, Sex, Work, Leisure and Children. The author taking part in activities and speaking to practitioners in each area.

The only aspect of the “slow movement” (and as Honoré says there is technically no formal slow movement) I have heard of is the “Slow food” movement. This was formed in Italy when McDonalds opened a branch in Rome by the Spanish steps. To many Italians this was like the Vandals sacking Rome again. The slow food movement has now spread worldwide and has three aspects to it. The first is as its name implies eating more slowly and savouring and enjoying food (this the book informs us can help loose weight). The second which Honoré describes has an ecological aspect to it, that is growing food locally and organically and slowly. This is unlike much of modern farming where everything is bred and fed to grow as fast as possible with deleterious effects for us, the environment and the livestock. The last aspect is related to locality, protecting and encouraging artisanal foods. The front line of the slow food movement for most of us is deli’s, farmer’s markets and small artisanal producers (in the UK this area is booming, cheese and beer are two examples of these).

There is a problem with all this though. That is, high quality food is expensive food. The author does attempt to counter this. One of his arguments is that some foods such as fruit, are cheaper at farmer’s markets. Another counter argument he makes is that cooking food yourself is cheaper than ready made meals. Unfortunately this is not always true. The one factor he does leave out from the cost point of view (though he mentions it for other reasons) is that of growing your own. This is undoubtedly cheaper than buying food, especially with the price of food having soared over the last 4 years or so. Ultimately Honoré thinks we have to be prepared to pay more for good food. My view is slightly more nuanced in that I think we be forced to pay more (because of peak oil with all agricultures dependency on the black stuff). He also thinks that small scale slow farming maybe the solution to feeding the world in the future. By and large so do I. The problem is all this will hit the poorest hardest and some solution will have to be found for this. I’m sure churches have a role to play here setting up community gardening schemes.

The Cities chapter is highly relevant to the subject matter of this blog. This chapter looks at examples from all over the world from again Italy with it “Citta Slow” movement to “New Urbanism” in the US. Broadly speaking most of the measures involve either restricting car use, or designing urban environments to reduce the dominance of the car. The “Citta Slow” movement is very allied with a the slow food movement and has many of the same aims of localism, but also creating locations for people to hang out with one another as well as green spaces. New urbanism believes in designing these features in, the example given of Kentlands in Maryland has been designed so that all the needs of the community are within easy walking distance. Plenty of green space is provided and the houses are designed with front porches so that community cohesion can be built. The problem as the the “Citta Slow” movement has found that this is not easy to do in existing cities. Here Portland may offer a vision with redesigned urban centres and a light rail system.

The book covers almost all areas of life, including mind/body. This chapter majors on meditation. By this we are talking about TM not the Christian discipline of mediation. For Christians this is where the book began to get a bit difficult (in the introductory chapter he actually quotes from the gospels a few times). However, some of the physical exercise ideas are very interesting and make sense, such as doing exercises very slowly. Again the chapter covering health from a Christian perspective is tricky with lots of alternative medicine. One of its major themes though is about slowing down the whole medical process of diagnosis and treatment and this does make sense in some instances (for example having a much longer consultation between Doctor and patient).

I’m going to say very little about the chapter on Sex. Mostly because many people I know maybe reading this. Its not a very titillating read but continues the new age theme and doesn’t have much of use to me personally and the bits that are I’m not going to share with you…

The book finishes off with chapters on Leisure and Children. The leisure chapter is again relevant to the post oil world. We all need to take time out from our increasingly frenetic lives and for example garden, learn to make something or listen to music (and switch off the television or computer/mobile phone). And talking of music, Honoré claims even this has speeded up and performances of well known classical pieces are faster than the composers envisaged. He also describes a slow performance of a piece of music by John Cage that is not due to finish for 639 years after it had started. One of my children had heard of this performance.

The slow child chapter is perhaps the least satisfactory chapter. The problem of children having their lives filled with activities is one I recognise. I know children who are never allowed to rest being shunted from one activity to another and as he says this is particularly true of privately educated pupils. However, its difficult to stop this when your own teenager wants voluntarily to do this. Nor do I think that the UK’s state schools do not “hothouse” (one of his solutions is to move your kids out of the private sector). Whilst testing at primary level has been abolished in Scotland and reduced at all levels in England and Wales I remain unconvinced that “slow learning” has gained any great traction since the book was published. The authors other remedies, that of alternative private schools such as Steiners and home education are never ones that have appealed to me. [Note to US readers the reasons for home education are completely different in the UK, its generally lefties who think state education is too pressured, there being enough private schools with a Christian “ethos” to satisfy this small demand].

The book is an easy read and well written. There is just one general niggle, all the references in each chapter are not numbered but are collected at the end of the book. This means extra work for the reader if they want to access them. So where does this leave us? In my view this book has a high degree of relevance to the concept of peak oil explored in our book and this site. This is despite the fact that its not specifically mentioned. Oil has given us perhaps too much choice of how to fill our time and arguably not always in a good way. Whilst I have reservations about some aspects of the book, its had quite a profound effect on me. I’m trying to eat more slowly with more local food and slow my exercise regime down at the gym. I’m also trying to read more and have dusted off my guitar.  There is much for Christians in this book to sit up and take notice of.  As Jeff Rubin said in “Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller”, your local community is about to become very important.  Most Christians have ignored the issue of peak oil, but churches should be set up for coping with it, since they should be a local community with links throughout their local community.

What I have discovered since starting this review is that there is a book called “Slow Church” coming out next year (published by of all people IVP!), see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ for details. I cannot wait to get my hands on it and will review it here.

I will leave the final word to Honoré, he says;

Tempted and titillated at every turn, we seek to cram in as much as much consumption and as many experiences as possible… The result is a gnawing disconnect between what we want from life and what we can realistically have, which feeds the sense there is never enough time.

Neil

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