Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.
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).
MORE ON BOOKS
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.)