In Praise of Slowness

October 20, 2007

One of the first pieces of advice that I was given when I started graduate school 30 years ago was to make a habit of reading the scientific literature. Keep up with the journals. Stay current. So I dutifully made a list of eight leading chemistry journals and began to read.

I understood the purpose of reading – this was going to be the principle mechanism for advancing my knowledge (I wouldn’t be taking many classes in grad school) and furnishing me with research ideas – but I wasn’t too clear on the actual practice. Should I read critically? Should I take notes? (One of my mentors suggested that every time I had an idea I should record it on a 3×5 card and drop the card in a filing box, so I began doing that.)

I was also uncertain how much to read. I knew that I didn’t have to read every article, but I also knew that I should read well beyond the narrow boundaries of my dissertation research.

I needed only a few months of not-so-dutiful reading to fall far behind the stack of journals that kept growing in the chemistry library and I eventually gave up. But after a few guilty months, I resolved to start again and do better. But I quickly fell behind again and gave up. And so it has continued for 30 years. The interruptions sometimes last just a few months, and sometimes several years, but either way I continue to feel a compulsion to read, to keep up, to stay current, and it is a compulsion that I have never satisfied. In fact, it is getting harder than ever because the amount of material that is published in my field each week has grown considerably in the past 30 years and I have far less free time for reading and for reflection today than I ever did as a graduate student. Today I’m lucky if I read a dozen published articles each year.

Journal reading is just one of several treadmills in my life. There are many things that I can’t keep up with, not just reading. Unread books are stacked up all around my house and office. Unpaid bills. Computer files that haven’t been read. Software that was purchased, but never used. Photos that are waiting to be filed into albums. Albums that waiting to be looked at a second time. And so it goes. Life keeps generating more and more things to do, and I keep falling farther and farther behind.

So when a friend pushed In Praise of Slowness into my hand and said, “you’ll like this,” I was more than ready to agree. Anything that could show me how to slow down the treadmills, figure out how to step off a few of them, order my priorities properly (reading First Things First a few years ago had given me an inkling how to do this: separate The Important from The Urgent), and generally create a more satisfying life would be much appreciated.

Unfortunately, In Praise of Slowness didn’t prove to be the right book for me. This is not a book that gives you analytical tools. I didn’t develop an understanding of life’s treadmills, of why unrealistic expectations appear uninvited, or why modern (?) life seems geared to create more and more treadmills.

In Praise of Slowness is truly a “praise” book and little else. It has just one story to tell — if you work (eat, drive, learn, have sex, think, play music) more slowly, you’ll enjoy life more and you’ll get more done — and it tells this story over and over again, chapter after chapter, by drowning you in anecdotes that are always a little too sweet and much too similar. Even though the author knows this kind of writing can be off-putting

Today we are assailed by books and documentaries about urbanites who go to raise chickens in Andalusia, make ceramics in Sardinia or run a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. (p. 93)

he plows a straight line towards the same target.

But if it is possible to offer too much (uncritical) praise for Slowness, some praise is needed. This wasn’t the right book for me, but if you have never questioned the relationship between quantity and quality of experience, i.e., if you think you must do more in order to have/enjoy more, this might be the right book for you.

Some quotes that I relished:

even sleep is no longer a haven from haste. Millions study for exams, learn foreign languages and brush up on management techniques by listening to tapes while they doze.” (p. 35)

“In 2000, David Cottrell and Mark Layton published 175 Ways to Get More Done in Less Time. … Tip number 141 is simply: ‘Do Everything Faster!'” (p. 36)

“The city keeps us in motion, switched on, constantly in search of the next stimulus” (p. 92)

“It is pointless to speed everything up just because we can or because we feel we must” (quoting Uwe Kliemt, p. 232)

“It is stupid to drink a glass of wine quickly” (again quoting U. Kliemt, p. 234)

In Praise of Slowness also contains a generous set of Notes with many wonderful references to the Slowness literature. And while I haven’t listened to any Slow Music yet, I’m looking forward to sitting down with Maximianno Cobra‘s 2001 recording of Beethoven’s 9th. If I can find the time, I might even listen to Longplayer.

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