Over the slow period of the winter holidays I read two books that, despite their titles, come down on the same side of the same subject. Both “Faster”, by James Gleick, and “In Praise of Slowness”, by Carl Honore are about Western society’s infatuation with speed and how it makes things worse.
There are two audiences such books preach to. The first is the type-A sinners who will likely get them as gifts from people who are trying to tell them to slow down. The second audience is the converted who enjoy hearing from someone who agrees with them or want better ammunition to use in their attempts to proselytize to others. That said, I’m not one of the two primary targets of these books. As someone that researches and writes on information overload and attention management, I was interested to see how these books fit into the narrative of information stress being caused by a misplaced desire to keep busy.
The best quote from “Slowness” (which admittedly means the quote that best makes a point I want to make anyways but he words it better) is:
Einstein appreciated the need to marry the two modes of thought: “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.” That is why the smartest, most creative people know when to let the mind wander and when to knuckle down to hard work. In other words, when to be Slow and when to be Fast.
Overall, I found “Slowness” to be more persuasive than “Faster”. The reason is tone. “Faster” uses guru grammar. In guru grammar an author uses “we” and “you” to indicate that the author is explaining you – your true nature that you don’t even realize – to you. Guru grammar also involves short, breathless sentences that accurately convey how a passionate speaker pounding a point home would speak on stage, but not how most writers write. For example:
- “Can our bodies take the strain? We suffer anxiety. We suffer stress. And more.” (p. 15)
- “We appreciate speed, as a tool of storytelling or just as a bright challenge to our senses. We admire speed, and always have, as raw virtuoso performance …” (p. 199)
- “Words swim instantly across the network, not caring about the mileage, and we don’t exactly feel information-deprived. We may be drowning, actually. But are we sacrificing longevity to gain glut?” (p.251)
This makes “Faster” read like a guru who is letting you in on the secrets of life. The result is to instantly force the reader to choose on the spot whether to nod the head in agreement or raise an objection to say “Wait … don’t include me in that! I don’t feel that way” and, thereby, switch to cynic mode.
Ironically, sometimes I wish the author of “Faster” would make his point faster. For example, there’s an entire 8 page section on elevators that tries to get across how they are signs of our impatience, “door dwell”, how the “door close button” is usually disabled, etc.
“Slowness” makes better use of other tenses to persuade. For example, page 138-139 uses almost all of them. “When we walk, we are aware of the details around us …”, “Alex Podborski could not agree more … ‘Walking is my chill-out time,’ he says …”, “Before you skip ahead to the next chapter, though, let’s lay to rest a misconception”, “Lifting weights at the conventional speed never did this much for me or anyone else I know.” The result is to provide a set of anecdotes and quotes that don’t immediately ask for buy-in until their mass wears away at your objections. It’s a personal preference, but I find this style more concrete, fact-based, and persuasive. It sounds more like a lawyer making a case than a preacher.
OK, so maybe I’m picky about writing style. What about the content? Here again I prefer “Slowness”. “Faster”‘s examples depend more on pop culture and is heavier on the author’s analysis. “Slowness” relies more on longer-form investigations of particular domains such as the slow food movement and fast driving (where the author admits to getting a speeding ticket while researching the book). And I like how “Slowness” often reiterates the point that fast is not always bad. There are times to be fast, but one should be conscious about when they could benefit from being slower and make more explicit decisions about when to hurry and when to slow down.