December 19, 2013


SPEED: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. By Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. Berkley. $16.

Happily Ever After: The Life-Changing Power of a Grateful Heart. By Trista Sutter. Da Capo. $24.99.

     The key word on the cover of Stephanie Brown’s book is in the subtitle: “addiction.” Brown, a psychologist who directs an outpatient addiction clinic in California and herself went through the Alcoholics Anonymous program when she was a recovering alcoholic in the 1970s, argues in SPEED that Americans’ preoccupation with technological connection and other forms of being “always on” has all the symptoms of a classic addiction and must therefore be treated as such by anyone who wants to break the habit. Brown is a strong believer in the well-known AA alcoholism-treatment program and is not so sure about the effectiveness of traditional forms of her own field, psychology: “While psychology believed in the human power to restore lost control, AA was based on a deep acceptance of the loss of control over one’s drinking and the inability to ever reclaim control. AA was founded on a fundamental acceptance of human limits.” Technology and other aspects of life have, of course, pushed those limits farther and farther, resulting in a great deal of good as well as considerable feelings among many people that they are incessantly stressed and unable to slow down, much less shut off, even for a brief period of time. So far, so good. But the AA model requires unquestioning acceptance of God or some God-substitute, some overarching being to whom one willingly cedes control after admitting that one cannot control one’s own habits and behavior. Brown likes this approach a lot and believes in it implicitly: “A concept of spirituality has always been a part of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, though what that spirituality means is open to interpretation by every autonomous member of this fellowship. In my view, it involves an acceptance of human limits and human need, with a reliance on ‘a power greater than ourselves.’ …We are caught in a fundamental spiritual ailment – a belief in self-power gained through the push of a button, a belief in speed and action for their own sakes, and a belief in the power of endless input, stimulation, and information.”

     Readers who accept this assertion at face value will have little trouble following Brown’s argument for an AA-based approach to slowing down and disconnecting from endless stimulation – an approach grounded in the 20 questions that AA uses to help people decide whether they are alcoholics. Readers not so enamored of the AA model – which is a major turnoff for numerous people precisely because of its requirement of belief in a supreme being and in one’s inability to control one’s life – will find Brown’s harping on the AA approach at least unhelpful, at most counterproductive. Chapters including “Behaving Like an Addict,” “The Feelings of an Addict” and “Thinking Like an Addict” lead to one called “The End of the Line,” after which Brown turns to the second part of her book, “Recovering from a Lifestyle of Speed.” This is the proscriptive part of what until this point has been descriptive, and this “Recovering” section makes a variety of recommendations that, once again, are largely AA-based, including “recovery development,” behavioral changes, and eventually “Living a New Kind of Life.” This life, it turns out, is one requiring a fundamental reorientation of Americans’ traditional preference for individuality over group cohesion and community – that is, a deliberate turn toward “acknowledgment of a higher purpose and a greater good than individual power.” By this time, Brown has gotten far beyond the addiction model of AA into sociopolitical arguments that are likely to be more than readers bargained for if they picked up her book in the hope of getting some help in restraining their preoccupation – whether or not one chooses to call it an addiction – with speed and connectivity. “Our focus on individual rights has led us to chaos,” Brown says, but that comment is several steps beyond what readers will likely sign up for if they recognize that they have a fast-life, constant-connection problem. Brown’s unquestioning AA acceptance and belief in community to the exclusion (or at least diminution) of individuality limit the value of her analysis of the trends that have so many people feeling overly connected and constantly time-and-situation-pressed.

     One thing that likely has many people feeling disconnected from reality and a reasonable pace of life is the change in the definition of the word “reality” itself, thanks in part to the profusion of so-called “reality” TV shows – carefully scripted programs that pretend to be unscripted and that retain a veneer of truth, using it to promote the notion that the activities of the actors on the shows are somehow as “real” as those of the people viewers encounter in their everyday lives. Take, for example, the notion of a young Florida woman being wooed by a poetry-writing firefighter in luxurious places around the world. Utterly ridiculous in most people’s lives – but that is exactly the scenario created by the producers of The Bachelor and lived by TV’s first Bachelorette, Trista Rehn Sutter. This all happened 10 years ago, and since then, Trista and Ryan Sutter have actually made a life together: they have two children and live in Colorado, where Trista is a stay-at-home mom when not appearing on other faux reality TV shows or writing simple, gushy prose for lightweight publications. Fans of the Sutter fairy tale –one of the very, very few reality-show romances that actually has had some staying power – will enjoy Happily Ever After, a book that thankfully does not focus on the wonders of reality TV but instead tries to reach beyond the screen to discuss living a thankful life. In other words, this is supposed to be a book about gratitude rather than about Trista Sutter, but it is unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with Trista Sutter will have any interest in it. The book gushes constantly. “It’s in his [husband Ryan’s] bones and his blood and his upbringing to be the best he can be.” “We feel truly blessed that Ryan’s parents live only a couple of hours away.” “If you are stuck in a job full of negative energy, don’t let it overflow into your home life.” “To keep my head in the game of life, I had to keep moving forward and not allow the weight of others’ evil actions to take me down.” “If you’re anything like me, you want to be happy.” Happily Ever After practically sinks under the weight of all the treacle, but this will be wholly unimportant to people who coo and sigh over the “reality TV” ethos and such wholly unexceptionable (and unexceptional) notions as making the most of whatever time you have for yourself, writing down positive thoughts and carrying them around with you, and inventing reasons to celebrate – or celebrating for no reason at all. People who find this sort of thing cringe-worthy will give Sutter’s ever-enthusiastic delivery of clichés at most a (+) rating, but they are emphatically not the intended audience for this book. Even those who are the expected readers, including celebrity watchers and devotees of reality TV, may find that Sutter lays things on somewhat too thickly for them. But they will enjoy the surface-level pseudo-wisdom here and, perhaps more importantly, the unending perkiness with which the ideas are delivered – as if these very old, rehashed thoughts are shiny and new.

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