World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down
Bauhan Publishing, $22.95, 368 pages
A fine Christmas gift would be one that beckons you to incorporate the gentler holiday spirit into the rest of the year. 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 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 of "World Enough" 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 anti-technological notes of transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But what elevates her book, beyond its rich thought and lush writing, is her emphasis that one need not become a hermit 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 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.
Born in London and raised in the Scottish hinterlands, McEwen has spent most of her adult life in the United States. Her core sensibility, an unusual blend of erudition and funk, reflects this cross-cultural seasoning. On one page of "World Enough," she is drawing lessons from bumping into a villager in Scotland; on the next, from encounters with a black child in Brooklyn or with a Latina woman in Queens. Only someone who has read as widely as McEwen, but has also taught inner-city Americans how to write poetry, could have crafted this book that gently teaches without ever preaching.
"World Enough" is not perfect. It could be trimmer. In Chapter Eight, "The Space Between," McEwen falls into 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.
There's an inflated reflection on how silence resides in poetry, and an overlay of quotes from her "friend Maia," and from the Swiss writer Max Picard and the American food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in which McEwen mainly seems to want to share things she's heard or read. And there is one of her rants against the Internet.
For all its faults, this revolutionary medium deserves better than her dismissal of it as a purveyor of "small tidbits of information" that we use "at the top possible speed." One suspects that like virtually all authors these days, she relied heavily on it while researching and writing "World Enough."
But overall her book is impressive, a work that builds a bridge from the overcrowded land of self-help tomes to the shores of literary and social criticism.