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Slow Reading and Recovering Local Cultures of the Book

The time is undoubtedly ripe for the emergence of Slow Reading practices, and I am convinced that as we discipline our minds and adapt to Slow Reading, these changes will ripple throughout every corner of our being.
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stack of old books
stack of old books

For at least three decades, since the emergence of the Slow Food movement in Italy, there has been a rising chorus of critiques of the speed of Western culture. One of the unintended consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the waves of technological innovation that followed over the subsequent two centuries is that our cultural expectations for speed have been gradually escalated. And rightfully, a wide array of Slow movements -- from the original Slow Food movement to Slow Cities to Slow Parenting to Slow Money and others -- are now appearing and gently pleading for us to slow down and adapt practices that draw us deeper into attentiveness and engagement.

Although I have been engaged at different levels with a number of Slow movements over the last decade, as the editor of a book review and one whose livelihood revolves primarily around books, my imagination has been captivated recently with the possibility of Slow Reading. Not surprisingly, there are some folks out there who are already using the terminology of Slow Reading. A Newsweek article by Malcolm Jones, dated June 2010, traces the history of Slow Reading back over a century to the work of Frederich Nietzsche who referred to himself as a teacher of slow reading. In the same article, we are introduced to John Miedema, who has a background in Library and Information Science, and in 2009 authored a book simply entitled Slow Reading. More recently, Thomas Newkirk, who is also mentioned in the above Newsweek article, published a book last fall entitled The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement. The six practices that Newkirk names are:
• Performing
• Memorizing
• Centering
• Problem Finding
• Reading Like a Writer
• Elaborating
These practices, if considered and implemented with reflection and care, will help us to dial back the speed at which we read and I'm hopeful will help us to be more mindful about the speed at which we approach other facets of our life.

I appreciate that in Newkirk's six practices there is some consideration of the social contexts and dynamics within which reading occurs -- particularly in the practices of performing and elaborating. What I would like to insert into the ongoing conversation about Slow Reading is that -- paralleling the Slow Food Movement's push for recovering a culture of the table -- we begin to reimagine what local and deeply rooted cultures of the book might look like in our times. As we seek to recover local cultures of the book, communities that read, converse and engage together around particular texts, it is a hopeful sign that in the last decade there has been a re-emergence of the book club as a prominent social phenomenon. My experience with book clubs has been, however, that typically once the meeting ends, there is minimal social engagement between participants and the text. Or, to put it another way, reading the text together doesn't generally serve to form a robust and sustained community whose social dynamics are progressively transformed by the practice of reading together.

I therefore take as an even more hopeful sign the efforts that some faith communities are making to recover longstanding traditions of reading together. Among Christians, my own faith tradition, I have seen a recent resurgence of interest the ancient practice of Lectio Divina; I must have had a dozen new books on the topic cross my desk in the last year. Unfortunately, most of these books describe Lectio as a technique for the careful reading of an individual, thus divorcing the practice from its long history as a social practice of faith (and specifically monastic) communities. By returning to the traditional roots of Lectio in the monastery, and exploring how this social practice of reading could take a new form in our church communities today, I think faith communities of the Christian tradition could make a significant contribution to the Slow Reading conversation.

Similarly, the Jewish tradition has the similar social reading practice of midrash, and although I am less familiar with the social reading practices of other faith traditions, I know that such practices exist and help these faith communities continually read, re-read and interpret their sacred texts together. Because our faith communities share commitments that run deeper than simply reading texts together, I am hopeful that we can lead the way in modeling a sustained culture of the book, and how such a community practice of Slow Reading will transform our lives and help us to slow down in other facets of our life as well.

The time is undoubtedly ripe for the emergence of Slow Reading practices, and I am convinced that as we discipline our minds and adapt to Slow Reading, these changes will ripple throughout every corner of our being. Slow Reading will be a more sustainable and transformative practice if we recover cultures of the book in which we experiment and grow together over time in our Slow Reading habits. Faith communities have a rich pre-modern history of social and slow reading practices, and by reimagining these traditions in our time, we will catapult ourselves into rich, social practices of Slow Reading and lead the way in recovering local cultures of the book.

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