The Slow Book Movement

The original slow book manifesto (November 2009) declared that the movement:

aims to inspire a reawakening to the act of reading. As we enter an era with more and more people “reading” books on digital screens, getting news headlines online, escaping through the flat screen at home, the time is ripe for people to be reminded, or introduced for the first time, to the joys of reading. 

Then in March 2012, Maura Kelly also called for a slow book movement, arguing that 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.

And then added: Slow Books will have standards about what kinds of reading materials count towards your daily quota. Blog posts won’t, of course, but neither will newspaper pieces or even magazine articles.

Also excluded: non-literary books.

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated.

Phew!

Then the splendid Writers’ Village Blog discussed the subject at length earlier this year http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/how-to-fall-in-love-again

An article in the Guardian newspaper in July 2010: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading Suggested that the problem was that with our modern, frenetic, habits, we are losing the ability to concentrate for long enough to read books. Actually, it says a lot more than that; I paraphrase.

I think that we have now come to a sort of consensus on the subject, in that when we refer to something called the Slow Book Movement, we are referring to the idea of reading writing that is leisurely, rich and intelligent. Writing that doesn’t attempt to hustle you, but takes as much time as it needs to adequately describe what it wants to describe. We used to do it all the time, of course. For example:

In the broad old-fashioned window-seat—as capacious as many modern sofas, and cushioned to serve the purpose of a luxurious settee—in the broad old-fashioned window-seat of a roomy chamber, Mr Chester lounged, very much at his ease, over a well-furnished breakfast-table. He had exchanged his riding-coat for a handsome morning-gown, his boots for slippers; had been at great pains to atone for the having been obliged to make his toilet when he rose without the aid of dressing-case and tiring equipage; and, having gradually forgotten through these means the discomforts of an indifferent night and an early ride, was in a state of perfect complacency, indolence, and satisfaction.

From ‘Barnaby Rudge’ by Charles Dickens.

Of course, we weren’t all being driven to distraction by texts and emails and phone calls and all the other demands for our attention that we have to put up with now. And there are still plenty of writers who can write this way:

‘During the hot afternoon the air shimmered with heat, the long white-walled house and the straight ranks of trees swam in an hallucinatory mirage, their wavering images quivering in rainbow-hued waves across which suddenly a parakeet darted. In one of the inner rooms of the house, Sathiah lay asleep on a mat. Outside, in the grove, the palmyrah palms enclosed the restless shadow of the child in his endless games. The house constantly projected itself before his consciousness, his black, leaping shadow imprinted on the white wall as he reared up suddenly against it, an elongated blind shade, as blind as the shadows of close-growing, dark trees.’

From ‘Peacocks and Dreams’ by Jean Arasanayagam, the Sri Lankan writer.

It is a three course meal with carefully chosen wines, brought to the table and served at leisure, rather than burger and fries on the run, which fills but rarely satisfies. It is a string quartet in an intimate space, rather than a strident ringtone next to you on a crowded train. It is a test match rather than a T20 fixture (any one from a non-cricket playing nation, please feel free to request an explanation).

Because a story is far more than its ending. Every author will attempt to pace their story appropriately, and even in a fast-paced thriller they need those slower segments for the reader to draw breath, and to build the tension. And surely in any story the construction of the world of the story is integral, so that the reader can visualise where the drama is taking place.

Writers now are frequently advised to cut out any word, phrase, sentence, paragraph or even chapter which their work can do without. To cut and pare down to the bare minimum. There should be nothing superfluous, otherwise our readers will get bored and put down the book, never to pick it up again. But, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, a lot of the attraction of the book for me was the colourful, and leisurely, descriptions of the journey, as much as the action. I am also an avid reader of travel books, and imagine a travel book where we are not told enough to be able to visualise the journey. Would that work? It seems most unlikely.

All of this is why the majority of my short stories are not, in fact, very short.

What do you think? Do you agree? Please let me know your thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “The Slow Book Movement

  1. Those are excellent – and very perceptive – thoughts, Mick. It’s interesting that Prof John Sutherland wrote recently in The Times that Twitter – which constrains the feeble minded to express themselves in 140 characters – is largely a vice of youth. As people mature, and assimilate more experiences, they yearn for longer narratives. (That is, if they read at all.) They discover that nothing can be said coherently in ‘gulp’ fiction composed of sound bites. We need not worry about the death of literature. (John Barth made that gloomy prediction as long ago as 1967 in his essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, then was forced to retract it thirteen years later in ‘The Literature of Replenishment.’) Slow books will live, for as long as there are slow readers 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A great article to get me thinking about books vs ebooks too. The act of turning a page is so much slower than a quick click of a button. My ebook has its place but I often find I prefer a real book to savour the story a little longer. I’m a member of a slow food movement here but I’d never really given much thought to the slow book movement. I will now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jane. It has to be a leisurely activity, for me. I want to have the time to really hear the roar of the storm and feel the hot sun on the desert sands, and when I write I want the reader to experience it, too.

      Like

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