A Slow-Books Manifesto

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Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

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Everywhere you look these days, there's a new "slow" movement. Since 1989, when the activists behind the Slow Food manifesto began calling on us to change the way we eat—arguing that meals that take time to prepare are better for our health, our world, and our happiness than faster foods—their ideas have steadily gained power. In recent years, splinter groups like the Slow Beer Movement and the Slow Cocktail Movement have formed. A November Washington Post piece by author-to-be Emily Matchar trumpeted the even newer New Domesticity Movement—so new that her book about it won't be out till next year. The effort unites a growing number of people interested in old-fashioned household activities—like making their own jams, whiskey, and pickled vegetables. They do it "both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat," as Matchar wrote.

I'm all for efforts like these. But 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. Reach for your e-reader, if you like. The Slow Books movement won't stand opposed to technology on purely nostalgic or aesthetic grounds. (Kindles et al make books like War and Peace less heavy, not less substantive, and also ensure you'll never lose your place.)

But 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. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka's "The Country Doctor"—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn't just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron's suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. "Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported ... that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective," she writes. "This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels."

With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we'd be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.

Best of all, perhaps, serious reading will make you feel good about yourself. Surveys show that TV viewing makes people unhappy and remorseful—but when has anyone ever felt anything but satisfied after finishing a classic? Or anything but intellectually stimulated after tearing through a work of modern lit like, say, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica?

And though a television show isn't likely to stay with you too long beyond the night that you watch it, once you've finished a slow book—whether it's as long as Tolstoy's epic or as short as Old Man and the Sea, as old as The Odyssey or as new as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, as funny as Portnoy's Complaint or as gorgeous as James Salter's Light Years—you'll have both a sense of accomplishment and the deeper joys of the book's most moving, thought-provoking, or hilarious passages. Time and again—to write that toast, enrich your understanding of a strange personal experience, or help yourself through a loss—you'll return to those dog-eared pages (or search for them on your Kindle). Eventually, you may get so good at reading that you'll move on to the slowest (and most rewarding) reading material around: great poems.

Meantime, 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."

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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