Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang – Book Review

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Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is as much a triumph of research as it is a call to arms for creatives to begin seeing resting as a skill, something that we should take seriously, to learn and improve at. Soojung-Kim Pang argues that resting well will benefit the quality of our creative output and, ultimately, lead us to live more productive, more fulfilled lives.

Today I was so tired that I forgot how to order a black coffee when I got to the front of the queue at Pret. Yes, this book was written for me.

I think Rest has much to teach us in a world that values the amount of time we spend in the office or working as a signal that we are business heroes, committed and hard working. At some companies this is insipid and an unspoken rule, but at others — mainly larger corporates and tech companies — employee perks are cynically designed to keep people at the office for the maximum amount of time. But, as the research in Rest begins to show, output actually drops as the number of hours an employee spends at work per week increases. 

My interest in rest doesn’t arise from a distaste for work. It starts with a sense that we should embrace challenges, not avoid them; that work isn’t a bad thing but an absolute necessity for a meaningful, fulfilling life. But I’ve also come to see our respect for overwork as, perhaps a bit paradoxically, intellectually lazy. Measuring time is literally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity, but it’s also very unreliable. 

Rest, pg 4

I’ve fallen into the trap. I want to be dedicated, hard working. So I regularly turn up early, finish late. But the reward of being seen to be committed becomes slowly undone as I become worn down by the job. Through no fault of my employers, my enthusiasm wanes as I become more tired, producing lower quality work and becoming more easily distracted. Is it just me?

Reading Rest definitely gave me hope that things can change. It’s an incredibly well thought out book that follows the lives of probably thirty or so people over the last two hundred years, some well-known, some less so. Churchill, Darwin and Salvador Dali are balanced with lesser-known (at least to me) scientists, artists and writers. Each of these people had common strands to their approach to their working lives that involved a balance of intense work along with the type of rest that Soojung-Kim Pang is a proponent of, a combination of long walks, naps, quality sleep, deep play (activities that often consume our minds and bodies, such as climbing, sailing or running) and taking sabbaticals. 

It sure ain’t concise

After reading light, airy productivity books made of concise points and short paragraphs (such as Make Time, which I highly recommend), Rest seems like a tome. It isn’t a short book to flick through and gain quick insights, and I did wonder whether it could have been cut shorter in places. But I appreciated the extent of the author’s research, and the unexpected connections he drew out between seemingly very different people.

The people the author chose to highlight were critical to my level of interest in reading, which I think made the decision to use a wide variety to reiterate a point a good one. The book spoke to me better through certain characters than others. For example, I was very interested to read of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien’s thoughts on the matter of rest, and less interested in a golfer I had only vaguely heard of. But I understand that this would not be the case for everyone, and so I think that the book’s appeal is in part due to this broad approach — there is something in it for everyone. But it does make it quite long, and a little repetitive.

There are lots of interesting scientific facts peppered throughout. For example, did you know that a firing neuron uses as much energy as a leg muscle cell during a marathon? (Page 188).

I found myself a little irritated at times reading about Victorian-era gentleman living in mansions in the countryside, being held up as prime examples of prolific creatives who valued rest. I think that whilst their output was often impressive, the nature of their lives (plenty of open air, regular social engagements and particularly a lack of worrying about money) must have played a part in this. Not all cases in the book were like this, but the ones that were felt a little out of reach to a modern day 9-5er like me.

One piece of advice I would offer is that if you are about to start the book, skip Arianna Huffington’s introduction — it’s just a rehashed version of the author’s introduction, which is much better — though still too long in my opinion. It does however give the reader a good foundation to begin the book with. The start of the book is some twenty pages in, and after the book officially finishes, a collection of footnotes, comments and a ‘bibliographic essay’ adds another fifty, so the book itself is somewhat thicker than the content itself might suggest.

Summary

For my part, I’ve been challenged by this book — excited by the prospect, and frustrated by the reality of modern civilisation in London. I’ll be honest – unless I work for myself again, I don’t believe I’ll be able to action a lot of what is suggested here, because I can’t just pop out and have a nap in the middle of the afternoon as Churchill somehow managed to during World War II. And my hours are determined by the standard 9-5.30-and-a-little-bit-more. Maybe one day I can be a creative doing four-hour days and swanning about after that. 

John le Carré wrote his first three novels during a ninety-minute commute to work. 

Rest, pg 66

But for now I think I’ll take some of the advice that Rest offers, and become like John le Carré (not in brilliance, just waking up times) and get up early to do my writing. That at least means that my evenings are more dedicated to quality restful time at home, and I’m less tempted to work into the night. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I recommend Rest – though it is challenging and a little bit frustrating in parts. Here are a few other quotes I found interesting from the book to finish up:

Today we venerate the child entrepreneur and envy the teenage billionaire. But long creative lives challenge our assumptions that youth is essential for good work, that fast beats deliberate, that reckless energy triumphs over steady experience, that greatness is a race against age and obsolescence. 

Rest, pg 16

Anthony Trollope… wrote a thousand words an hour, an average of forty finished pages a week, until it was time to leave for his day job at the post office at eight o’clock.

Rest, pg 64

Taking rest seriously… heightens your ability to concentrate and discourages multitasking. It helps contain our impulse to be (and to publicly appear to be) super busy…

Rest, pg 241

Now go rest. (After leaving your thoughts in the comments below, of course).

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