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Reading the World: ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by Haemin Sunim ***

I haven’t made many forays into non-fiction during my Reading the World Project; whilst this has not been deliberate by any means, it is lovely to be able offer something a little different for this week’s post.  I was given a copy of Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by a dear friend after she undertook a stint of work experience at Penguin. Thoughtfully, Abbie wrote in her note that she thought this tome would be a good antidote to in-depth thesis reading, and it was.

9780241298190Nearly three million copies of the book have been sold worldwide since its publication in 2012, and it has been translated from its original Korean by Chi-Young Kim in collaboration with the author himself.  This year, in fact, marks the publication of its first English translation.  It is essentially a guide to mindfulness, of how to make the most of oneself despite outside factors sometimes wishing to throw us off course.  The subtitle of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, ‘How to Be Calm in a Busy World’ will, I am sure, speak to many of us in the modern world.  I am personally a very calm person, and rarely get stressed out, but I find books like this lovely to dip in and out of; they are soothing, almost.

Sunim is a Buddhist monk, who lives between his native South Korea and the United States, where he lectures.  Building on a large Twitter and Facebook presence, where he tweets missives and guidance, he has aimed to offer ‘advice on everything from handling setbacks at work to dealing with love and relationships’.  His ‘simple, compassionate teachings transcend religion, borders and ages, and serve as a calming reminder of the strength and joy that come from slowing down’.  This inclusivity is admirable, certainly; one thing which we dearly need in this world is a demonstration of the things which unite us, rather than divide us.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been split into several sections – ‘Rest’, ‘Mindfulness’, ‘Passion’, ‘Relationships’, ‘Love’, ‘Life’, ‘The Future’, and ‘Spirituality’.  Each chapter opens with an essay, which muses upon the subject in question and how best Sunim thinks we should approach it, and is then followed by a series of short pieces, ‘words of advice and wisdom’.

To me, a lot of the short sections felt a little cheesy and patronising, which I’m sure was unintentional on part of the author; we are told, for example: ‘Pat yourself on the back for the hard work you are doing.  Then go to bed one hour earlier as a gift to your body’.  I preferred the essays, which were largely thoughtful and well thought through.  There are some nice pieces of advice given about how best to take notice of the world around us, and spending time with loved ones.  Occasionally, though, this advice is just plain odd, and blunt in its delivery: ‘A good family trip can prevent divorce’.

Much of the book, as one might expect, spirals around spirituality and religion, two topics which do not particularly appeal to me as an atheist.  I did find that Sunim came across as rather preachy at times, which did not endear me to him.  However, he suggests meditation as a way to grasp one’s own consciousness of the world and their place within it, which, I felt, was quite a nice piece of advice which could be easily worked into even a hectic day.  Some of his ideas are nice, and he is clearly passionate about what he is writing about, however, so there is a nice balance to be found within.  It does seem at times as though Sunim was merely working through his own insecurities whilst writing, and several of the asides seem downright obvious.

On an aesthetic level, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been beautifully designed, and put me in mind of the recent craze of lovely hygge hardbacks.  Lovely illustrations have been included throughout, which add yet another dimension of calm to the tome.

I believe that The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down will be of most use to those who suffer with anxiety disorders and depression; it is a rather light but fitting book that can be read one small part at a time, and offers useful advice for seeing positives and focusing upon things of importance to the individual.  The author, in fact, recommends that it is not read all in one go, from cover to cover; rather, he says, sections should be digested and reflected upon by the reader before he or she moves on.  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down would be a very thoughtful addition to a loved one’s bedside table or reading stack, to provide respite from hectic lives, stresses, and other problems.

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Classics Club #53: ‘Living’ by Henry Green ***

I have wanted to read Green’s work for such a long time, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I have never before got around to it.  As a nudge in the right direction, I decided to add a couple of his books to my Classics Club list, and Living was the first of these which I began.  Rosamond Lehmann, herself a successful author, wrote that Living was ‘the masterpiece of this disciplined, poetic and grimly realistic, witty and melancholy, amorous and austere voluptuary’, and W.H. Auden proclaimed that Green was ‘the finest living English novelist’.

Set during the 1920s, and first published in 1929, the novel focuses upon the Duprets, the upper-class owners of an iron foundry in Birmingham, who are struggling to keep the business going.  A young woman named Lily Gates is one of the protagonists too; she keeps house for three of the men who are employed there, including ‘stalwart Jim, who is bashfully courting her’.  Lily’s head is soon turned by a rival suitor named Bert, who promises big things but ultimately fails her, leaving her to return to the house from whence she came.

Living was inspired by the work which Green himself partook in within his family’s business.  Jeremy Treglown’s introduction to the lovely Harvill Secker volume which I read is informative, and sets out the main points of Green’s life without making it sound like a dull fact-finding exercise.  He writes: ‘Both Green’s autobiography… and some passages in Blindness show the intensity of his guilt about inherited wealth at a time of deep aristocratic recession’.  He goes on to say that ‘Living, after all, is about a bewilderingly big business in an enormous town, and about the people who are dependent on that business: how they get their living, how their lives are run, how far they are free to live for themselves: what, if anything, their being alive amounts to’.  Living, Treglown believes, is ‘a book about how people really live: their hopes, but also their compromises and defeats, and the way those defeats may not be so bad after all’.

The stream of consciousness narrative within Living causes Treglown to draw comparisons between the novel and such works as Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) and Virginia Woolf’s stunning To the Lighthouse (1927).  The interesting prose style does not make use of many articles – ‘a’ and ‘the’ are often purposefully omitted, for example – unless they are spoken by one of the more well-to-do characters.  I was surprised as to how quickly I was able to get used to this style, an example of which is as follows: ‘They went through engineer’s shop.  Sparrows flew by belts that ran from lathes on floor up to shafting above by skylights.  The men had thrown crumbs for them on floor’.

To conclude, Living is a fascinating novel of times gone by, and it has made me want to go and seek out the rest of Green’s novels sooner rather than later.

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