Christian McEwen’s remarkable World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down demands to be read slowly, savored and then allowed to simmer quietly in the soul.
Having acquired a small army of loyalists in the United States and abroad, it has just gone into its third printing. The wonder of this book lies not in its new truths, but rather in its eclectic and quirky re-invention of timeless truths.
While McEwen ties her central focus — “hurry sickness” — to texting, email, the Internet and other digital diseases of our age, her book shows that creative men and women have been rebelling against hyper-accelerated lives for centuries. The most concise summary comes from Socrates, the ancient philosopher who McEwen notes approvingly warned his fellow Greeks: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Lauding nature and “childhood’s golden hours,” McEwen often echoes the anti-technological notes of American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But what elevates her book, beyond its rich thought and lush writing, is her emphasis that you don’t need to become a hermit fleeing to a cabin on a pond in order to find a more meaningful life.
With her gift for making connections over time across literary, religious and cultural traditions, McEwen insists that pursuing seemingly impractical interests such as reading or walking, daydreaming or gazing, can produce important practical gains.
“Wordsworth was read by Thoreau who was read by John Muir who in turn was read by Theodore Roosevelt, leading him to write the bills that inaugurated the National Park system,” she writes.
At 317 pages, the book could be trimmer. In one chapter, McEwen falls into some rare moments of self-indulgence. There is a long paean to a gimmicky concert by composer John Cage that “opened with a rest” on Sept. 5, 2001, but didn’t sound its first note until Feb. 5, 2003.
But overall her book is impressive, a deceptively seamless work that builds a needed bridge from the overcrowded land of self-help tomes to the serious shores of literary and social criticism. In between them is a place McEwen calls “an island known as Slow,” and she is its wise yet never overweening tour guide.
James Rosen reviewed this book for McClatchy Newspapers.