Books: Speed may not necessarily be of the essence

The world moves faster and faster for everyone, but this persuasive book urges us to ease off, reflect and put the balance back into our lives, reports Matthew Gwyther.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Although In Praise of Slow sits in the self-help section of most bookstores, along with Who Moved My Cheese? and Beating Candida The Natural Way, it should really be in the business section. The gathering rebellion that it describes is likely to grow in strength in the West, and will have a profound effect on customer and staff behaviour for many businesses - not just those engaged in the production of fast food.

Now published in paperback, Carl Honore's book is well on its way to cult status. It has been described as the No Logo of its age, but it's far more compelling and intelligent than that, and a necessary addition to the reading list of marketing, HR and new product development departments.

We all know that the world moves faster and faster each year. Time and tide waits for no person. Technology makes things happen quicker and quicker: we find information via the broadband web in seconds that would have taken days 20 years ago; we make TV suppers in the microwave in two minutes flat; we make and lose millions in weeks, sometimes minutes. These days, you are quick or you are dead.

As Honore writes: 'The clock is the operating system of modern capitalism, the thing that makes everything else possible - meetings, deadlines, contracts, manufacturing processes, schedules, transport, working shifts. And in the search for increased efficiency and therefore profit, everything has to be done faster.' Or does it?

Via a series of essays on everything from food through education to the world of work, Slow considers approaches where speed might not be of the essence. In studying the Slow Food movement that began in Italy in 1986 and is now a substantial business with more than 100,000 members in over 100 countries, Honore argues that speed is often at the expense of quality and high margins.

This is a well-worn road and, thankfully, one is spared some of the gross detail one was forced to endure in Eric Schlosser's seminal Fast Food Nation. Nevertheless, Honore's reminder that 200 years ago the average pig took five years to reach 130 pounds, whereas today it hits 220 pounds aged six months and is slaughtered before it loses its baby teeth, makes his point.

The fast-food industry in the UK is currently under sustained and unendurable stress, with scares coming in droves. How prescient was the legendary French gastronome Brillat-Savarin when he pronounced two centuries ago that 'the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves'.

In his chapter 'Mind/Body: Mens Sana in Corpore Sano', Honore, a North American now resident in Britain, is persuasive in questioning the way we have been conditioned to think in the workplace, where we are bombarded with mental stimulation: 'Reaction, rather than reflection, is the order of the day.' The true eureka moments come from Slow Thinking, which is woolly, intuitive and creative. There's little doubt that those economies that will survive and prosper in the 21st century are those with plenty of slower thinkers on board.

Not everyone will have this. There is, of course, a counter-argument - 'In Praise of Speed'; not necessary the sole preserve of boy-racing oafs like Jeremy Clarkson. This would argue that a global hitting of the brakes is all very well, but nobody's ever going to get anywhere if we are all chilling out under palm trees, taking up Tantric sex with Sting plus his missus, and spending three hours cooking the evening meal.

Doesn't capitalism in practice depend on the Type A personality - that unholy soup of competitive urgency, impatience, restlessness and short attention span? What Honore would say is not that he's advocating doing everything at a snail's pace or a return to an idyllic pre-industrial age, but that it's all about balance, the tempo giusto, or right speed.

Here at MT, we have much sympathy with Honore's arguments, especially if there is a competitive advantage in them. He may be a little wide-eyed and over-earnest: 'Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.'

But his research is thorough and highly persuasive, and it's hard to dispute some of his conclusions. Who, for example, would dare disagree with a mind like Einstein's, when he declared: 'Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant. Together, they are powerful beyond imagination.'

Read Slow slowly to allow inward digestion without dyspepsia, and not at a breakneck pace to finish it in four hours flat - as this reviewer did, because he had yet another deadline to meet.

In Praise of Slow

Carl Honore

Orion £16.99

MT price £14.99

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