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A Slow Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

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. […]

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.”

Read more. [Image: Reuters] 

You know something? As lovely as this sounds in theory. As catchy as that motto is. No. 

Let me tell you about classics, long, thousand page novels, spiraling stories about love and betrayal and society and repression. I can tell you about them because I’ve read lots and lots and lots of them. Name one and I’ve probably read it. If I haven’t, I probably will. But I didn’t love all of them. I didn’t even like quite a few of them, and fewer still have changed my life or bettered my person. 

The books that stayed with me and that I value reading are the ones that make me feel something, the ones that make me, if only momentarily, escape to a different sort of life. Sometimes it’s short stories. Sometimes it’s old and sometimes it’s contemporary and sometimes it’s something in between. It’s Richard Yates’s trembling middle class suburbia. It’s Colette’s free spirit and petulant eroticism. It’s David Wojnarowicz’s rage and desperation, which you will never, ever find in an English Literature curriculum. It’s stories about sex and seemingly unremarkable people’s extraordinary moments. 

And you know something? I read them fast, on subways, in between places, for moments at a time. Or I read them for hours in bed with a cup of tea. It doesn’t matter—reading isn’t something to be ritualized, fetishized, it’s something you do for the pure joy of it. And sometimes it isn’t books. It’s essays, blog posts, even heart breaking 140 characters or less, tweets.

So: Read. When you want to. Mostly good books. But always ones that make you feel, think, and long to be alive. Not to keep the canon of 100 greatest books of all time alive, but to know, to remember, that you’re human, that you feel—that you’re not alone.