Slow Notion

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

If you're like me, you missed the annual International Day of Slowness, observed on--appropriately--June 21, the longest day of the year. First observed in Milan in 2007, the IDOS celebrates the idea of stepping out of the fast lane by doing less, taking your time at it, and reflecting more on it, at least for one day. Go for a long walk, prepare a meal from scratch, curl up with a good book, or just sit for a few minutes and do--gulp--nothing. It's a quiet but thoughtful protest against the breakneck and often heedless pace of contemporary life. If I were more up to speed, you might have read this in time to do something slow on the right day. On the other hand, if you're going to be late with something, this seems like the appropriate subject. Celebrate now. Who's going to call you out?

But I digress. In the spirit of questioning the need for speed, let's turn our attention to the Slow Reading movement. Slow reading has always gotten a bad rap. Slow readers in school were the bad students. No one ever got a blue ribbon or a good grade for plodding. So it comes as a surprise to find that the phrase at least comes with a distinguished pedigree.

"Slow reading" goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 described himself as a "teacher of slow reading." He was referring specifically to philology, the study of texts and documents to ascertain their original meanings and authenticity. But simply by raising the point, he plainly believed he was bucking a trend. After all, if slow reading needs a teacher, it's not something that comes naturally. Sure enough, by the time Nietzsche made his claim, the modern world--i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good and faster is better--was just getting up a full head of steam.

In the century and a quarter since he wrote, we have seen the world fall in love with speed in all its guises, including reading--part of President John F. Kennedy's legend was his ability to speed-read through four or five newspapers every morning. And this was all long before computers became household gadgets and our BFFs (the infatuation with abbreviations for everything is only the most recent symptom of our problem--we don't even have time to laugh out loud anymore).

Now and then the Nietzsches of the world have fought back. Exponents of New Criticism captured the flag in the halls of academe around the middle of the last century and made "close reading" all the rage. More broadly, the concept of slowness as a positive took off in the past decade. First there was Slow Food, then Slow Travel, then Slow Money. And now Slow Reading. In all these initiatives, people have fought against the velocity of modern life by doing less and doing it slower. In that regard, the Slow Reading movement is hardly a movement at all. There's no letterhead, no board of directors, and, horrors, no central Web site. There are Web sites, all of them preaching, in various ways, the virtues of reading slowly. But mostly the "movement" is just a bunch of authors, schoolteachers, and professors who think we're all reading too much too fast and that we should think more highly of those who take their time with a book or an article. …