The Limitations of the Slow Books Manifesto
One of the few things I find comforting about contemporary society is that, no matter how vapidly dumb our popular entertainment gets, there’s always going to be a reaction. That reaction doesn’t generally reach the same number of people as, say, the newest episode of “The Jersey Shore,” nor, obviously, does it have the same kind of immediate cultural impact. But there’s still a place for it. The memes now come from the mindless, but at least critical commentary hasn’t become pointless in its own right.
Sometimes, though, criticism of popular entertainment often seems just as out of touch with intellectual reality as do the crappy TV shows or the vomit-inducing dubstep albums. As with any other opposition of extremes, the advice of the representatives of high art often clashes to such a degree with the cultural fluff that it comes off not only as a bit pretentious, but also as entirely inaccessible and impractical. And sometimes it can just be a piece of new technology that pushes the critics over the edge, as we saw with the literary backlash against e-readers, which people like Jonathan Franzen told us would kill the whole act of consuming literature. (Not to mention the other million times that particular argument has been made over the course of human history, starting with the Greek philosophers’ skepticism about the act of writing things down.)
Now it seems as if this generation’s reaction to televised and Googled garbage is going beyond criticism of the media and methods by which we disseminate the stuff, and it’s hitting the content itself. This, I thought after reading an article in the Atlantic this week in which the writer, Maura Kelly, calls for a “Slow Books Movement” (one that she’s modeled after the Slow Food manifesto of the late ‘80s, which knocked our obsession with fast food by lauding the benefits of meals that take longer to prepare). It’s a nice thought she has — that a required, 30-minute-per-day reading session including only classic or modern literary fiction will counter the perceived intellectual damage done by “fast” entertainment — but it’s one that also shows us how shallow academic responses to pop culture can be.
“In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature,” Kelly writes, “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.” Which is great, I think, and totally true. I lend so many books to friends, or at least make recommendations, partially in order to do my best to spark an interest in more complex and though-provoking diversions, and sometimes I think it works. It’s important to remind people of all ages that this work still exists, it’s still okay to read, and it’s often still relevant amidst the various social and political issues we’re dealing with today. But what Kelly goes on to do in her own brief manifesto is something that I think happens too often when advocates of any kind of canon decide to assert themselves in the public eye. She assigns an arbitrary value to literary fiction that places it, in an unnecessarily and naively elitist way, above any other form of contemporary writing.
As she goes on to tell us, “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.” The problem here is that, like the purists who decided that reading literature on a tablet isn’t really reading literature, Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the inherent relevance of the media that marks our generation. In the case of e-readers, that relevance was practical; in this one it’s intellectual. Certain blogs, no matter how casually presented they might be, just don’t fall into the general culture of mindlessness she characterizes as fast entertainment. Yes, I know that about 95% of them do, and they’re often made to be devoured quickly, with gossipy curiosity rather than introspection; but, as with any arrangement of the written word, there are cases in which real worth can be found by a discerning reader. I’m thinking — to combine two categories Kelly places off-limits — of blogs now frequently written by top journalists and critics to supplement their newspaper or magazine’s online content. The style is more engaging, always topical, and allows readers to approach the perspectives of these writers in provocative and more personal ways. They offer unique societal insight that doesn’t replace the things we gain from fiction, but can certainly supplement it. And that doesn’t mean they can’t be read slowly, or treated critically, just like your seventh re-reading of Moby Dick or On the Road.
The same goes for another category of writing that Kelly excludes from the Slow Books Movement: non-literary fiction. Again, I’m not going to deny that the vast majority of genre novels offer little-to-nothing in terms of real depth — but that doesn’t mean all of them do, and it doesn’t mean that various masters of the craft should be automatically glossed over when we try to promote the health of the literary tradition. What about an author like Ursula K. Le Guin, whose thematic forays within sci-fi provide readings just as “slow” as those of anyone else writing over the course of the last 50 years? Or what about someone like Colson Whitehead, who started off writing strictly “serious” work and then decided to write a zombie novel, just because he detected a certain cultural relevance within that narrative style?
So, yes, people should read more of the classics. And we should continue holding contemporary writers of literary fiction in high regard (partially because they’ll never again be the rock stars they once were, no matter how many Slow Books Movements take place). But when we react to the sheer idiocy of popular entertainment — which has been equally idiotic within every era of history — we need to be careful about where we start drawing the lines regarding what merits reading, and for what reasons. No matter how important great fiction is, it isn’t where culture begins. The eye of that hurricane is one infinitely more nebulous and strange, and it asks much more of us, as readers, than simple judgments of worth.