If you’re looking for easy answers, this isn’t the book for you. But I’m of the mind that there are no easy answers, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. This isn’t a self help, follow-these-explicit-steps-to-a-happier-life kind of book. But those types of books often require you to buy more books of the same nature. Great literature doesn’t answer questions, it causes you to ask questions and look for answers internally or externally. William Powers is not a Wise One, he’s a Wisdomkeeper. He doesn’t give you a fish; he doesn’t even teach you to fish. He inspires you to ask why are we fishing? Is fishing right for me? Should I learn to fish or should I try something else? Maybe bagels?
If I learned only one thing from reading New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City by William Powers, it’s that Bill eats a lot of bagels. Having only visited New York City a couple of times, briefly, when I was young, I didn’t have a clear idea of how the city feels. The city is represented in many different ways through many different media: books, movies, television shows, commercials, idioms, etc. Over time, I created quite a complicated metaphor for the city, from the crowded streets shown in so many eighties movies (Crocodile Dundee) to the mellow, relaxed coffee shop, Central Perk on Friends, to the old fashioned city depicted in so many J. D. Salinger stories. New York City is multifaceted, and now I have a new piece to add to my puzzle. This piece is peaceful, where there’s time for coffee and bagels.
Powers writes about New York City as if it were a village surrounded by and filled with secluded forests. A New York City where you can get bagels in the morning, take a train/bike ride to the wilderness for a solitary hike and still make it back home for dinner and a relaxing evening on the roof of your apartment building. I have no reason to believe this New York City doesn’t exist. In fact, I’m sure it does exist, at least for him.
Does this NYC exist for anyone else? I hope so, because it sounds great. It also seems necessary. I did actually learn about more than bagels. While this book is mostly a personal account of one man trying to live simply and savor life, there are some important facts scattered throughout. The one that has stuck with me is this one from page 50: If you compress geological time into six days, so that each day represents about three quarters of a billion years, humans don’t appear until 11:57 pm on the sixth day. We’ve only been around for three seconds. “At one fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution begins, and since then, we’ve used up most of the earth’s resources and consumed more than the rest of the people who ever lived.” This idea comes from a sermon by David Brower. He says, “There are people who think what we’ve been doing for the last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. They are considered reasonable people, but they are stark raving mad!”
On the bright side, what I learned from Powers is that we create the world around us, both internally and externally. Powers could live in the same building as a man who works sixty hours a week, rarely sees the sun and has never even been to Central Park. There are over eight million New Yorkers, so there are over eight million New York Cities. We can live in the one that created the phrase “New York Minute,” or we can live in the one William Powers lives in. Remember when we all wondered how the characters on Friends had so much time to sit around in the coffee shop? When did they work? Maybe Powers has figured that out. And while he has created his own New York City, he has also helped to create a better world for the rest of us to live in together.