A Slow Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
Why so much emphasis on what goes into our mouths, and so little on what goes into our minds? What about having fun while exerting greater control over what goes into your brain? Why hasn’t a hip alliance emerged that’s concerned about what happens to our intellectual health, our country, and, yes, our happiness when we consume empty-calorie entertainment? The Slow Food manifesto lauds “quieter pleasures” as a means of opposing “the universal folly of Fast Life”—yet there’s little that seems more foolish, loudly unpleasant, and universal than the screens that blare in every corner of America (at the airport, at the gym, in the elevator, in our hands). “Fast” entertainment, consumed mindlessly as we slump on the couch or do our morning commute, pickles our brains—and our souls.
That’s why I’m calling for a Slow Books Movement (one that’s a little more developed than this perfectly admirable attempt).
In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature—to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. They’ll help us unwind better than any electronic device—and they’ll pleasurably sharpen our minds and identities, too.
To borrow a cadence from Michael Pollan: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
Aim for 30 minutes a day. You can squeeze in that half hour pretty easily if only, during your free moments—whenever you find yourself automatically switching on that boob tube, or firing up your laptop to check your favorite site, or scanning Twitter for something to pass the time—you pick up a meaningful work of literature. […]
If you’re not reading slowly, you’re doing yourself—and your community—a great wrong. As poet Joseph Brodsky said in his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Though we can condemn … the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books, we are powerless when it comes to [the worst crime against literature]: that of not reading the books. For that … a person pays with his whole life; … a nation … pays with its history.”
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
I agree. But I also disagree. Classics weren’t always classics. At what moment is a classic defined as such? Read more. Read often. Read slowly. But also read passionately. Read classics. But also read contemporary literature that may become the classics of the future. Read what you like. Struggle through books that may not make sense at first. But also fly through books that absorb and posses you.
If you only read or only mostly read classics you are missing out on a lot of exemplary contemporary literature. There are many classics that I absolutely adore, but I hate when people insinuate that other literature is not as good/less worthwhile.
There are great books that maybe haven’t been out long enough to be considered “a classic.” Or whose publisher just didn’t market the book right, but the writing is of brilliant caliber. Or books that were only never hits because they were about coal miners when the “in” thing was vampires. Or books that can’t possibly be “literature” because they’re “young adult,” meanwhile Catcher in the Rye was a hit before YA was its own genre!
Just please don’t ever discredit a book because it’s “not a classic.”
And pushing classics is, I think, why a lot of people don’t read. Outside our little circle of book lovers, a lot of classics have a reputation of being dry, or irrelevant in contemporary times. I struggled through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead the first time I read it. And then Howard Roark won me over with his closing speech at his trial, and I immediately reread the whole novel. But non-readers won’t do that. They won’t enjoy the poetry of Beowulf because half of them don’t know anything about the original language it was written in, and so to them it’s just a cheesy monster story that got turned into a bad movie starring Angelina Jolie.
So let them read contemporary literature. Let them read Harry Potter (which I might argue is a classic at this point), The Notebook, The Hunger Games, Steig Larson’s trilogy, and even (God forbid) Twilight. Because then maybe, just maybe, they will pick up another book. And then another. And maybe then they will become a reader. And then maybe they make their way to the classics.
And that contemporary lit they read in the meanwhile? It might just become the next classic, and they will have read it long before you.