Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed
New York, 2004
Survival was one incentive for measuring time. Ancient civilizations used calendars to work out when to plant and harvest crops. Right from the start, though, timekeeping proved to be a double-edged sword. On the upside, scheduling can make anyone, from peasant farmer to software engineer, more efficient. Yet as soon as we start to parcel up time, the tables turn, and time takes over.
We become slaves to the schedule. Schedules give us deadlines, and deadlines, by their very nature, give us a reason to rush. As the Italian proverb puts it: Man measures time, and time measures man. By making daily schedules possible, clocks held out the promise of greater efficiency – and also tighter control.
In 1748, at the dawn of the industrial era, Benjamin Franklin blessed the marriage between profit and haste with an aphorism that still trips off the tongue today: Time is money. Nothing reflected, or reinforced, the new mindset more than the shift towards paying workers by the hour, instead of for what they produced. Once every minute cost money, business found itself locked in a never-ending race to accelerate output. More widgets per hour equaled more profit. Staying ahead of the pack meant installing the latest time-saving technology before your rivals did. Modern capitalism came with a built-in imperative to upgrade, to accelerate, to become ever more efficient.
During the early part of the Industrial Revolution, the masses worked too hard, or were too poor, to make the most of what free time they had. But as incomes rose, and working hours fell, a leisure culture began to emerge. Like work, leisure became formalized. Many of the things with which we fill our spare time today came into being in the nineteenth century. Football, rugby, hockey and baseball turned into spectator sports. Cities built parks for the public to stroll and picnic in. Better printing presses, coupled with rising literacy, fuelled an explosion in reading.
Even as leisure spread, people debated its purpose. Many Victorians saw it chiefly as an escape from work, or as a means to working better. But others went further, suggesting that what we do with our free time gives texture, shape and meaning to our lives. “It is in his pleasure that a man really lives,” said Agnes Repplier, an American essayist. “It is from his leisure that he constructs the true fabric of self.” Plato believed that the highest form of leisure was to be still and rece3ptive to the world, a view echoed by modern intellectuals. Franz Kafka put it this way: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain seated at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Bernadette Murphy, a forty-year-old writer based in Los Angeles, caught the mood with her 2002 book, Zen and the Art of Knitting. She sees the return to needles and yarn as a part of a wider backlash against the superficiality of modern life. “There is a great hunger in our culture right now for meaning, for things that really nurture the soul,” she says. “Knitting is one way of taking tie to appreciate life, to find meaning and make those connections.”
Knitting by nature is Slow. You cannot push a button, turn a dial of flick a switch to knit more quickly. The real joy of knitting lies in the doing , rather than in reaching the finish line. Studies show that the rhythmic, repetitive dance of the needles can lower heart rate and blood pressure, lulling the knitter into a peaceful, almost meditative state. “The best thing about knitting is its slowness,” says Murphy. “It is so slow that we see the beauty inherent in every tiny act that makes up a sweater. So slow that we know the project is not going to get finished today – it may not get finished for many months or longer – and that allows us to make our peace with the unresolved nature of life. We slow down as we knit.”
In almost every culture, the garden is a sanctuary, a place to rest and ruminate. Niwa, the Japanese word for garden, means “an enclosure purified for the worship of the gods.” The act of gardening itself – planting, pruning, weeding, watering, waiting for things to grow – can help us slow down. Gardening does not lend itself to acceleration any more than knitting does. Even with a greenhouse, you cannot make plants bloom on demand or bend the seasons to suit your schedule. Nature has its own timetable. In a hurry-up world, where everything is scheduled for maximum efficiency, surrendering to the rhythms of nature can be therapeutic.
Like knitting and gardening, the act of sitting down and surrendering to a piece of writing to size the cult of speed. In the words of Paul Virilio, a French philosopher, “Reading implies time for reflection, a slowing down that destroys the mass’s dynamic efficiency." Even when overall book sales are stagnant or falling, many people, particularly educated urbanites, are saying to hell with dynamic efficiency and curling up with a good book. It is even possible to talk of a reading Renaissance.