IN PRAISE OF SLOWNESS

How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging

the Cult of Speed

By Carl Honore. HarperSanFrancisco. 310 pp. $24.95 Long ago Henry David Thoreau observed -- in probably his most famous single sentence -- that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Certainly the sense of alienation, of being disconnected from our truest selves, of having somehow lost our way in life is now so common that many of us just take it for granted. It's the human condition. The fault of original sin. The fallout from a consumerist culture or of a narcissistic preoccupation with our own egos. Lying awake at 2 a.m., we wonder: When did I take the wrong turning in the road? What went wrong? How did I come to be so dissatisfied with everything? Carl Honore claims that one major culprit for this pervasive malaise is the cult of speed. We are always on deadline, rushing from one appointment to the next, hurrying to take children to soccer or piano practice, grabbing a quick bite at our desks, constantly multi-tasking, constantly checking our personal digital assistants, our voice mail, our e-mail, weeping with road rage when the traffic slows, staying at work for 10 or more hours at a time, always on the go, always behind, always on, always late. How many of us live on the edge, the fraying edge? In every aspect of our daily routines we feel overbooked, overscheduled and overextended.

The old joke went: Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down. But do we have to wait for that grim last quarter hour? Honore -- a Canadian journalist residing in London -- chronicles a worldwide movement, in many areas of life, that rejects rush and hurry, that strongly believes and argues that slow is not only beautiful but also better.

In brisk, cleanly written chapters (that read perhaps a little too much like a series of slick magazine articles), Honore traces his personal encounters with advocates of slow living. He discusses yoga and meditation, attends a Tantric sex workshop, visits a village-like housing development (our own Kentlands, up near Gaithersburg), interviews health-care providers who treat their patients as people rather than cattle, listens to musicians who argue that we play Beethoven too fast. Leisure, wrote Josef Pieper, is the basis of culture, and Honore further underscores how important seemingly empty hours of downtime and reverie are to productive work and creative thinking. He touches on the over-regimentation of children and their schools, the need for idleness and daydreams, even boredom, to enrich young lives. What's more, he reminds us that "a microscopic obsession with detail is a classic symptom of neurosis" and -- in a chillingly insightful observation -- notes that "in the final stages before burnout, people often speed up to avoid confronting their unhappiness."

In perhaps his strongest chapter, Honore takes up the art of eating. After World War II, "food came to be marketed less for its flavour and nutritional value than for how little time it took to make." Two centuries ago, "the average pig took five years to reach 130 pounds; today, it hits 220 pounds after just six months and is slaughtered before it loses its baby teeth." We pay for this devil's bargain with flavor. Where are the tomatoes of yesteryear? And the Edenically sweet melons and berries, the tangy sausages and hams and turkeys? Little wonder that organic food stores and Whole Foods supermarkets have begun to flourish, though even their offerings often fall short. No cherries have ever tasted even remotely as tart and luscious as those we secretly picked as children from a neighbor's lovingly tended tree.

But are such tastes truly gone forever? Honore travels to Bra, Italy, to attend a meeting of Slow Food, an international organization devoted to taking time in the kitchen, preserving local culinary traditions, using regional produce, bringing back endangered fruits and vegetables. The goal is to restore that lost flavor to what we eat, and thus to our lives. The pleasures of the table, as any Mediterranean can tell you, are as serious as those of the flesh. And both are at their best when enjoyed at the tempo giusto, the appropriate speed.

A realist, Honore recognizes that most of us don't have the option of spending three hours over lunch or dinner, except on the rarest occasions. "The Slow movement," he concludes, "is not about turning the whole planet into a Mediterranean holiday resort." (Let me point out that I think this would be a very good idea.) "Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs, and what the Slow movement offers, is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes in between. Slow means never rushing, never striving to save time just for the sake of it." At the very least, he says, we should try to cultivate an inner slowness.

No one is likely to disagree with most of Honore's argument, in part because little of it is particularly new. Long ago Lewis Mumford affirmed that the clock was "the key machine" of the Industrial Revolution, because it serves, in Honore's phrase, as "the operating system of modern capitalism, the thing that makes everything else possible -- meetings, deadlines, contracts, manufacturing processes, schedules, transport, working shifts." Thus we have set up a mechanical god to regulate, indeed run, our lives. But In Praise of Slowness shows us various methods to release ourselves -- if only partially -- from what Baudelaire denounced as "the horrible burden of time," to break free of the "Matrix"-like illusion that we have no choice. When Thoreau was asked why he left bustling Concord to live quietly, in harmony with nature, at Walden Pond, he answered: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com