View from Rue Saint-Georges

Slowing Down

Thoughts on the imperiled life of leisure

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | June 6, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday, I had lunch with an older American writer and a French writer my age. When the waiter took our order, the American and I happily decided to split a half-bottle of Burgundy, while to our amusement, our French companion solemnly opted for a Coke with a slice of lemon. I’d recently read a smart essay in The New York Times Magazine “recommending” lunchtime drinking as a way of reasserting a sense of pleasure and humanity in a culture of productivity that has led too many of us to ditch even a dry lunch break and to bring our office by way of email and smartphones into our bedrooms.

“We’ve arrived at this improbable moment when microdosing LSD in order to increase workplace productivity is, in some precincts, more professionally acceptable than having a glass of wine,” Adam Sternbergh wrote. The point he was making, and one worth lingering on, is that contemporary American middle- and upper-middle-class life (and increasingly, as my friend’s Coke reminded me, life in many other countries too) has become far too oriented around work to the detriment of rest and leisure. If we accept Robert Owens’s famous dictate from the industrial revolution—“eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”—then we’ve lost our sense of proportion.

I thought about these proportions of good living, the value of gustatory pleasure and the satisfaction of a glass of good wine in the evening, in light of another recent argument. New research, the result of decades-long studies, shows that for adults over the age of 40, after just five drinks a week, each additional drink shaves 15 minutes from an average lifespan. The conclusions of the research were presented in numerous articles as a black-and-white case against drinking. But I am not sure that’s the only way to interpret them. A glass of good Burgundy with a piece of good meat, over good conversation—perhaps that is worth 15 minutes.

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