Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 7 July 2013
I’m a slow reader of books. I do it deliberately hemin-hemin.
Oh, I can read fast when I really have to — and do so with newspapers, magazines and websites. It’s an essential survival skill in today’s information society.
But when reading books, I take my own cool time. Books are not to be rushed through; they are to be absorbed slowly, one chapter or one idea at a time. And I’m not (yet) a fan of e-books and haven’t got any e-book reader or tablet.
Those around me are amused and puzzled by this slow reading. They know my capacity to marshal new information and ideas, so they wonder why I sometimes spend weeks reading one book.
I’m not alone. There are others who cherish slow and reflective reading. There is, in fact, a (slowly emerging!) slow reading movement worldwide. It’s an eclectic group of academics and writers who want us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical books, and the ability to process them fully.
Call us old fashioned. But Luddites we certainly aren’t.
John Miedema, a technology specialist working with IBM in Ottawa, Ontario, has written a book titled Slow Reading. He draws on both his personal reading experience and academic research on the subject to make a powerful case for the deep pleasures of engaged, reflective reading.
This is not a discussion about paper books vs. e-books. How we read matters much more than the medium itself.
Taking it Slowly
Compared to the involuntary practice of slow reading – various forms of dyslexia – little is known about its voluntary equivalent.
“Readers make choices in the kinds of attention they give to texts – from scanning, skimming and speed reading to deep reading and re-reading,” says Professor Catherine L Ross of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at University of Western Ontario, reviewing Slow Reading.
Author Miedema compares the slow reading movement to the better known Slow Food movement, a backlash against American-style fast food. Both encourage increased mindfulness in the conduct of a routine activity.
Slow Food was started by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini when McDonald’s planned to open an outlet near the famous Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) in Rome in 1986. Outraged, Petrini organised a demonstration where bowls of penne were used as weapons of protest.
The fast food chain backed down, and shortly afterwards, Italians launched what became the International Slow Food Movement. It’s a of like-minded individuals opposed to not just fast food but also unsustainable (industrialised) food production and the resulting eroding of local economies and small farmers.
They now claim over 100,000 members spread in over 50 countries, but remain mostly a loose network of volunteer enthusiasts. Their preferred symbol is the snail. In recent years, they have found common ground with the organic food movement.
Slow food comes naturally in southern Europe. Spending two or three hours over a group meal is a routine activity in countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain. (Economists and productivity buffs probably feel that it’s a bit too slow…)
Over the past quarter century, Slow Food has evolved into a broader Slow Movement. Some see this as a response to the ever accelerating and stressful modern lifestyles. According to its website, the Slow Movement aims to address the issue of ‘time poverty’ through making connections.
There are now separate groups advocating slow travel, slow art, slow media and even slow cities and slow parenting. Some of these might appear romanticised or quixotic pursuits of a pampered middle class (so what?). But many also have political underpinnings.
Take, for instance, the Slow Cities movement – which started in Italy in 1999 (as Cittaslow) before spreading across Europe and beyond.
In this, small towns or cities (typically with population below 50,000) rethink how they organise urban landscapes, so that people may slow down – mind you, voluntarily – and improve their quality of life.
To qualify, a city must meet 55 criteria, which covers a range of practices related to environmental policy, infrastructure, quality of urban fabric, and encouragement of local produce. Slow cities, its proponents say, have less traffic, less noise, fewer crowds. More at: www.cittaslow.org
When a city chooses to be “slow”, it also makes a philosophical statement – that in this 21st century, slowness still has a role to play, says Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, known for promoting the Slow Movement.
He sees the Slow Movement as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better”. The Slow philosophy, he says, is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. Rather, it’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed.
“In this media-drenched, multitasking, always-on age, many of us have forgotten how to unplug and immerse ourselves completely in the moment. We have forgotten how to slow down,” he adds.
Honoré believes the modern world’s emphasis on speed erodes health, productivity and quality of life. But there’s a backlash brewing, as some people start applying the brakes on their accelerated lives.
His 2004 book, In Praise of Slow, dissects our speed-obsessed society and cheers those who have gotten in touch with their “inner tortoise.”
“Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting,” he says.
‘Road Runner’ mentality
Many among us lead a fast life instead of a good life (some lack choice; others don’t exercise it). Trying to juggle many personal and professional tasks in our waking hours, we feel eternally rushed. So we look for shortcuts: from speed reading and speed dating, to more hazardous practices of sleep deprivation and speeding on the roads…
Carl Honoré noted in a TED Talk: “Even sex is on the stopwatch these days, but there is an awful lot to be gained from slow sex”.
So the Italians – who else? — have now launched a slow sex movement!
The Canadians, meanwhile, have started an International Day of Slowness, which is observed every year on June 21. Clémence Boucher, a Montreal community worker, got together with some friends in 2001 and picked that date as it marks the official beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere.
Celebrating slow and thoughtful approach to life isn’t new. The ancient Romans had a classical Latin adage “Festina lente” that means “make haste slowly”. It was used as a motto by Emperor Augutus, who founded the Roman Empire, and later by the House of Medici during the Middle Ages.
To truly appreciate slowness, we have to shed the misconception that equates slow being less smart.
Contrary to a popular notion, slow doesn’t mean lethargic or lazy. Not all mindfully slow and easy going cultures are necessarily economic laggards. Honoré points to the Nordic countries where people work fewer hours, but sustain highly competitive economies and a higher quality of life.
Perhaps we should remember Einstein’s words: “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate — and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant.”
Watch Carl Honoré TED Talk – but he talks too fast!.