Monday, January 28, 2013

The Long Haul and the Short Attention Span

Carl Honoré, The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter, and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed

As an amateur reviewer, I have no greater frustration than agreeing with a book’s core thesis, but feeling disappointed by its execution. Take this one: I like Carl Honoré’s claim that we must abandon the myth of the “quick fix,” in which we want to spot-check problems with spit and string and fairy dust. Particularly in light of recent hot-button news, we need to dispel that illusion and reawaken our passion for long-term investment in slow, fundamental remedies.

But when Honoré stops talking abstractions and gets into the details, he becomes an object lesson in his own point. He anchors each of his fourteen very short chapters on a narrative that supports his point, but only spends about half of each chapter on his exemplar story. He name-drops sources old and new, caroms among interesting but loosely organized anecdotes, and doesn’t so much make his point as circle it, waiting for us to make his connections.

What Honoré terms “the slow fix” comprises a range of solutions to life’s problems, which we can apply individually or (ideally) in some combination. We might think of these solutions as character traits, or leadership skills. They include, but are not limited to, long-range thinking, preparing for diverse circumstances, heeding the right advice, and honing our intuition. Our parents tried to teach us these traits as kids, but as adults, we too often need to be reminded.

Again, I agree with this, in principle. But Honoré explicates what each of these means in ways that sprawl all over the map. He will anchor a chapter about, say, fine detail thinking, on the story of an oil rig inspector who accurately predicted a major blowout. But he’ll veer off, for little visible reason, to a paragraph about Steve Jobs, two paragraphs on classical music, a brief discourse on surgical antibiotics. It’s like watching an ADHD student trying to paint.

In my favorite example, Honoré stops a discursion on a successful effort to revive a decrepit urban school, to quote a French marriage counselor. Honoré’s source wants us to understand the importance of finding the unstated story behind one incident: “You cannot understand a Shakespearean play by listening to one soliloquy... A relationship is like a large and complex puzzle, so you need to examine all the pieces and then work out how to fit them together.”

That’s a clever quote, to underscore a valid point. But in context, what does it mean? It’s a prime example of what rhetorician Gerald Graff calls a “hit-and-run quotation,” where an author will throw some citation in, expecting the audience to instinctively understand why it matters. That line deserves to be unpacked more, because thrown out as it is, it looks like an inexplicable digression that slows the pace of an already rocky narrative.

I so much wanted to like this book. Research has shown, time and again, that the key to success rests on long-term investments and tenacity. You can tell how someone will handle work, education, and life by how long they can work on a math problem before they give up. Education journalist Paul Tough stresses the point that long-term perseverance makes more of a difference than sudden flashes of genius.

But Honoré just gives me no place to hang my hat. As he slaloms through his list of bromides, anecdotes, and pointers, he pauses on none of them long enough for them to have any sense of depth, or for them to feel particularly real to me. Though I did take a few valuable lessons from this book, one by one, I really felt Honoré expected me to supply the overarching narrative for him.

Honoré fixes his book among writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, and Charles Duhigg. And not only among them, he quotes them. I keep wondering if Honoré has a new idea for his context. The New Republic reviewed a book by the disgraced Jonah Lehrer as “self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but reading this book, I think I now understand.

In his introduction, Honoré admits he falls into the trap of the quick fix, and that he wrote this book as much for himself as for us. To which I reply: and how! Excluding the back matter, this book runs less than 200 pages. Honoré’s important, timely thesis deserves much more conscientious unpacking. Instead, it becomes an object lesson in our society’s addiction to haste.

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