What you need to know:
- Modernity has seen human beings adopt to a fast life that abhors a slow way of life and boredom.
- These are times when a book such as In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore is a gem.
Read your story word by word. Try to understand what the paragraph you have finished reading means. Attempt to see the connection between the last paragraph and the new one. After reading the whole story, reread it, at a slower pace now. That way, you will appreciate the story better than if you read it fast and only once.
There was a time when teachers would advise learners to read in these words. The language teacher would urge: slow, fast, faster; slow, slower. That way, the readers would learn how to spell and pronounce.
Then times changed.
Suddenly slow readers would be left behind. They would be on their own. They would need remedial teaching if not special attention. The world became fast. It was either you are fast and first or a loser. Slow mail died. The Internet was born. The telephone died. The cellphone arrived.
The printed book became old fashioned. The e-book stormed the world. The world spun: fast and faster. Slowness became equated to laziness. Working at one’s pace or even walking slowly would be seen as lack of pace or lack of seriousness. Then Covid-19 arrived.
These are trying times for humanity. Social distancing has slowed down that pace that had defined humanity in the past half a century. Stay at home edicts means many people really neither have anywhere to go nor much to do. Slowness has caught up with billions of people all over the world, especially the lot that had received the gospel of a fast-paced life wholesome.
These are times when a book such as In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore is a gem. To praise slowness, Honore reminds the reader, “… is not a declaration of war against speed.”
Speed isn’t bad. It is just that it has “… tuned into an addiction”, according to Honore. He argues that even when speed fails, we seek to go faster, “Falling behind at work? Get a quicker Internet connection. No time for that novel you got at Christmas? Learn to speed-read. Diet not working? Try liposuction. Too busy to cook? Buy a microwave.”
But, he cautions, “… some things cannot, should not be sped up. They take time; they need slowness. When you accelerate things that should not be accelerated, when you forget how to slow down, there is a price to pay.”
Mutually Assured Destruction
Have you ever heard of the Japanese word, karoshi? Probably not. Yet you could be a victim of “death by overwork”, which is what it means. No. You may not die soon. But overwork is killing many people all over the world. But before they die, they pay a huge price. They become addicted to drugs that (overworked) doctors are only too happy to prescribe.
This medication is meant to slow down stress, mental illness, weight-related illnesses etc. Too many young people are trying to work two or more jobs to keep up with the Joneses! They wish to be on a fast lane and roll faster, in a manner of speaking.
Today in Kenya everyone speaks about the ‘side hustle’ – because someone needs to make more money compared to the neighbour. But it is precisely this need to acquire riches sooner that is driving people too fast into crime, family breakups, mental breakdown or even suicide.
Honore suggests that humanity is headed towards Mutually Assured Destruction because “… we have forgotten to look forward to things, and how to enjoy the moment when they arrive.” So, people can’t enjoy a restaurant meal, or fans leave sporting events before it ends, or would rather multitask than do one job at a time, or would prefer to read the newspaper whilst watching the TV, he explains.
We seem unable to savor a meal, or taste the wine, or read a long newspaper article, or follow a radio talk. We got to get on with other things, apparently because ‘time is money.’
Indeed, Honore warns, we no longer have the luxury of idling. What would we do without the TV channel surfing or checking social media chats or reading emails? He warns that we have consequently “… lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.”
He argues that ‘boredom’ is a recent invention – less than two centuries old. Because of what we are sold as boredom, individuals have become hooked onto gadgets and programs on all kinds of media. People think that they just can’t sit around, doing nothing. They must do something. But can one really just sit and do nothing? Sitting alone, with one’s thoughts, one is doing something – they are letting the body relax.
The cult of speed may have led to life-improving innovations, it may have delivered more goods and services to humanity, it may be the source of immense riches for younger and younger people; but it has also raised significant social crises in human lives.
Reading long African novels
Young children are being treated for aggressive behavior caused by a number of reasons - absent parents; poor parenting; demands made on them at school; peer influence etc. Adults seem be infecting young children with their ‘speed syndrome’: children are expected to go to school earlier; eat faster; behave like adults; perform better at school and tasks; not idle and play etc.
To go back to the story of being taught to read that I cited above, too many children are no longer allowed the luxury of reading slowly, thus absorbing the sounds, the mood, the tone, the tenses of the words they are reading. The faster the better. The more words – as meaningless as they may seem to be to the child, or even the adult – a child in the ‘play group’ school learns fast, the prouder the parent!
Are we surprised that when these children reach the age to read longer stories – either literature or history or biology books – they just can’t! It is simply because they were never allowed to enjoy reading in the first place. Yet, we now adults have found a formula around that problem. There are abridged versions of all kinds of stories or even ‘sixty second soundbites’ – One Minute Bedtime Story, according to Honore.
Probably we need to relearn how to diddle and dawdle a bit. Waste time a bit. Doze a bit whilst at the desk. Just gaze out the window at nothing. Miss the deadline a bit. Read that long story in the newspaper.
Or take up the challenge of reading these five recent long African novels by women authors – The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor; Americana by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Akata Witch by Nnedi Okafor; Old Drift by Namwali Serpell; The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi etc. Or pore over the recently released government budget estimates for 2021/2022.
Maybe there is actually something interesting in reading the entire newspaper on Saturday – from the front page to the back page, getting to know a little bit of the news on politics, crime, agriculture, economy, gossip, cartoons, advice columns, death announcements, job advertisements, sports etc.
Covid-19 may go away one day. But it will probably leave unforgettable lessons for humanity. Millions of people now have time that they really don’t know how to use. Why? Because we have been taught for generations that we must race against time in order to succeed and live better.
As Honore warns in In Praise of Slowness, let’s start by “reassessing our relationship with time” by seeing “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.” Reviewing this book, which was first published in 2004, is my own way of trying to slow down.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]