Thursday, November 28, 2019

Taking it easy (2011)

Book Review from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Praise of Slow. By Carl Honoré. Orion Books.
How To Be Free. By Tom Hodgkinson. Penguin Books.

Honoré’s book is hard to pigeon-hole. Part self-help manual, part commentary, part investigation and part a downshifting guide book, it looks into some fundamental questions about how we in the West particularly live our modern lives.

So much of today is rushed, pushed on by rabid consumerism and overbearing industrial culture that we are in danger of losing ourselves, our perspectives and our direction as individuals as well as a species. The pace of modern living continually re-enforces the ‘speed is good’ culture, the work harder, work longer, live faster ethic. In this book Honoré looks at what drives this insanity and the growing rejection of it by ever larger numbers of people. Although mainly anecdotal and sometimes trivial even, the light style is easy to read. He investigates various ways in which individuals and groups are rejecting the constant work-earn-spend cycle and taking time to live a little, before going on to suggest ways in which you can adopt a slower lifestyle.

Reading this as a socialist, I found some of the arguments obvious and some a little woolly, but to be fair to the author I don’t think he set out to tear into the cause behind what he refers to as the ‘cult of speed’. We know that capitalism is the driving force that creates many, if not all, the problems referred to in the book. The solutions proposed and, indeed, being implemented by some groups clearly have merit, but are not available to all and never will be without wholesale revolutionary change.

However, the reasoning behind acting, thinking and generally taking life a bit slower is something we can all aspire to and provides a topic to engage people in discussing the shortfalls of modern life and how things can be better under a different system.

Hodgkinson’s first book, How To Be Idle was reviewed here last month.  I read his How To Be Free on the recommendation of a friend. It had inspired him to leave behind London for Sussex and adopt a ‘good-life’ complete with chickens. Must be some book I thought!

Hodgkinson’s writing style is very readable. Each chapter is a short guide to breaking free from the chains modern society binds us with. Railing against supermarkets, the nine-to-five culture, careerism, mass-production, and pensions, amongst others, with humour, literary references, quotes from songs and poems, fascinating historical anecdotes and large slices of real life, he explains how each of us can be ‘free’.

Although the book is written with some tongue in cheek, it does make for a great read and emphasises some salient points about the way we live under capitalism and how and why it could and should be much better. The ideas are rooted in doing something with your own life now as individuals rather than through any collective action, although conversely much is made of the advantages of being in a group.

Whilst much of the book gives good ideas and can sow the seeds of rebellion, most assume a position of some luxury to start with (I don’t think Hodgkinson has come from a council estate in Manchester). I enjoyed reading it and have even gone so far as trying out some of the ideas, but kept coming back to the fact that for most people taking up some of the suggestions would be very impractical. However, as a book that questions the ethos behind consumerism and urges the reader to take personal action to stop buying ‘stuff’, it is a great read.
David Humphries

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