Slow Reads

Martha Toll explores the pleasures of deliberate reading.

by Martha Toll

One of the great pleasures of cold weather is taking the time to prepare a hearty meal.  I love the smell of pumpkin-butternut squash soup bubbling on my stove, or beef stew that spends the day simmering—sending off the pungent smells of oregano, red wine, and onions in brine.

Slow Food USA advises that “every day can be enriched by doing something slow.”  As a society we appear to be failing miserably at that.  We are increasingly a country of sleep deprived multi-taskers:  plugged in and teched up.

Still, I wonder if we could take a page from the slow food movement and put on some brakes.  Suppose we found time to shut down the email and muzzle the tweets, tore ourselves away from Facebook, and halted the text messaging?  We could start a slow reading movement and indulge in some old technology:  a book.

But we’ll need some ground rules.

Rule Number One.  Movies don’t count.  You haven’t read Anna Karenina if you’ve seen the PBS series or The English Patient if you watched the film.

Rule Number Two.  You’ve got to read some long ones.  Sorry, but some of the best books are over 500 pages.  It’s hard to appreciate David Copperfield in Spark Notes or get the whopping emotional wallop that Crime and Punishment delivers from Wikipedia.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom just isn’t going to fly in an abridged version.

Rule Number Three. Reading the review isn’t the same.  How would you ever get to know Oscar Wao if all you read was the book review?  Or get the scope of Marion Stone’s odyssey from a synopsis of Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone?

Rule Number Four.  Try not to multitask.  I know it’s hard.  For many of us the only reading we do is on the treadmill or the train to work.  But isn’t there something delicious about curling up for the afternoon with a page turner, gripped by a blood curdling mystery or a heart breaking love story?  Is there a greater pleasure than being transported to another continent, or another time period, or even another universe, all within one volume?  When is the last time you read the full download on your Kindle, or visited the library, or sat in an armchair in a bookstore for something other than a cup of coffee?

And finally, Rule Number Five.  Don’t rush!  If you speed read To the Lighthouse, you’ll miss the best parts.  Virginia Woolf is turning a melon, examining human nature from all sides.  The juicy stuff will pass you by if you don’t take your time.

I know the world is spinning faster and growing smaller.  Information gushes 24/7, the city never sleeps, and every communication is instant.  But can’t we put some time aside to stretch our minds and think about something other than the tanking economy and our ballooning deficit?  Maybe we could read a book or two.  Slowly.

Martha Toll is Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has just received representation for her debut novel.

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