Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly)

            The road to hell is, as we know, paved with good intentions. But there is a less well-known road that also leads to hell, or some lesser hells. It is the speedway, an asphalt express transport to tarnation. Speed, which is the curse of our civilization.
            I was thinking of this today when I was looking up the etymology of “impend,” which has two meanings, both, of course, derived from the Latin. Ah, Latin! That reminded me of the College Boards, as a former college entrance exam was called. In it, as my headmaster apprised me, I had achieved the highest score in Latin in the country.
            Now, I was pretty good at Latin, sure. But the highest scorer, surely not. Then it occurred to me: It wasn’t knowledge; it was speed. The written examination for Latin was in two sections, one for prose, one for poetry, and you were to choose one or the other. Since I finished the prose section quickly, I thought “What the hell!” and went on to the verse. So it was on the quantity, which is to say speed, of my answers that I really made it.
            Ah, speed! It occurs to me that so much in our lives is counterproductively geared to speed: the maximum we can squeeze into the minimum of time. This impended on me on a half-hour phone in radio show on which I was a guest along with another interviewee. We were to make useful pronouncements--in just how much time? Advertising took up easily half of that half hour; the other half, involving a slew of questions (which also took their time) was split up between the two of us. How smart can you be in a sound bite of a few seconds?
            It is pretty sad that even on radio, television’s poor cousin, there should be no chance for a little leisureliness--that even there the sound bite should rule. And just how much good are the soundest opinions spouted in sound bites? Do rattled-off statements make much of an impression?
            The only place where an interviewee is given a little time is a television talk show, and it had better be a major one if it is to reach more than a handful of fanatics. But for that, you have to be a major celebrity, a movie or sports star or sex kitten, and blurt out chitchat, or at the very least a politician dispensing a prefabricated party line.
            It occurs to me that success on every kind of test or examination hinges on speed rather than real aptitude. Thought takes time. Even if you are good at thinking on your feet, it behooves those feet to be running rather than firmly planted.
            And speed is indirectly guilty even of crimes against language, against pleasing expression. Why do you suppose the deadly contamination of “like” has infected our language? Speakers who needed a little crutch when talking speedily, as most people do, used to rely on the “er.” It was a filler, as in “It happened on Saturday, or was it on . . . er. . . Friday or Sunday?” Now the “er” has been retired and replaced by “you know” and “I mean” and, most often, “like,” pressed into the service of besmirching speech, even if to “er” was more human.
            The one speed-thing I used to be interested in was speed-reading. To a fairly slow reader it seemed like a good idea. Upon investigation, however, that proved illusory. Anything worth reading and absorbing—anything worth retaining—calls for “slowreading.” After all, doesn’t the very word “speed,” as the pseudonym of amphetamines, contain an implicit warning?


  1. Thank you for great article. On a similar theme, see "Solitude and Leadership," by William Deresiewicz, a lecture delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2010. Tom Parker, DC

  2. Fantastic piece, thank you! Robertson Davies once gave a lecture that touched on some of the same themes:


  3. The above link to the Robertson Davies lecture, "Reading and Writing," has been changed to: