[ Editor’s Note: I was honored to be part of a panel conversation on Slow Reading and Slow Writing, at last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. The other panelists were Rachel Marie Stone, author of the award-winning [easyazon-link asin=”0830836586″ locale=”us”]Eat with Joy[/easyazon-link]; John Wilson, the heralded editor of Books and Culture; and Leslie Leyland Fields, author of many books including [easyazon-link asin=”0849964725″ locale=”us”]Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers[/easyazon-link]. As Rachel was traveling back to the US from Africa just prior to the festival, she wrote out her talk ahead of time and graciously gave us permission to run it on our site.]
by Rachel Marie Stone
Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, my great-grandmother Katherine somehow saved up a few thousand bucks to buy a little sandy plot on the corner of Jacqueline Road and Surf Drive and there she built a little beach cottage among the open sand dunes.
It was a five-minute flip-flop walk to the roaring Atlantic, and a wonderful, wonderful place to read; cozy couches and bookshelves lined the walls; no television pulled anyone’s gaze from the page.
In the sixties, great-grandmother Katherine added a sunroom, amply supplied with crammed bookshelves and comfortable chairs, and it became my father’s favorite place to read.
“Do you like this room, Tommy?” she asked him. “I like it very much, Grandma,” he answered. “I’m glad, Tommy,” she said.
She was Irish, and thus this exchange constituted one of the most deeply emotional encounters my father remembers having with his grandmother, as anyone who is Irish, or who has read Angela’s Ashes, may understand.
Beneath that terse exchange was the fact that my father looked very much like Grandma Katherine’s deceased husband, for whom he was named. My great-grandfather Tommywas a postal clerk with an 8th grade education, but it didn’t stop him from reading all my grandmother’s college textbooks cover to cover from pure curiosity.
Decades later I came to adore The Beach House, as we always called it, as a wonderful place to read.
By this time — the late 1980s and early 1990s — the expansive, almost desolate dunes over which my father and his siblings had rambled barefoot through many Julys and Augusts had metastasized into sprawling beach mansions in one of which Gwyneth Paltrow now “summers” (regrettably, that is the verb to use.)
When Chris asked me to participate in a panel on Slow Reading, I had the fleeting fear that to do so might be fraudulent: I can’t remember ever really reading slowly, except for Foucault and Derrida in graduate school. But just the phrase “Slow Reading” channeled a long-forgotten memory: a day when I promised to try to read slowly.
It was at the bookstore near The Beach House, which was called, snootily, “Book Hampton.”
(For a while, when the Hamptons became The Hamptons, every business seemed to change their name to Something-Cutesy-Hampton: Pet Hampton for collars and leashes, Bike Hampton for tires and air pumps, Death Hampton for your funeral needs, etc.)
Book Hampton was the kind of place that most definitely charged the suggested retail price and not a penny less. There was probably a markup, actually, because you might bump into Billy Joel while you were looking for a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has got to be worth at least 10% extra.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money — we ‘summered’ in the ‘Hamptons’ only because of great-grandma’s prescience in buying property now coveted by the too-rich and too-thin — but I had already read all the books I’d brought with me more than once and, despite The Beach House’s loaded shelves, there was little to appeal to a nine or ten year old girl among the musty, mid-century volumes.
I chose a few books from the pristine shelves of Book Hampton. My mother raised her eyebrows at the prices.
“Mom. I promise–I’ll read them slowly. Okay?”
She raised an eyebrow. I never read slowly; she and everyone else who knew me knew that. “You’ll be done with these in a day!” she said, and it was the truth. I did finish my books that day, or maybe the next. Since another trip to Book Hampton wouldn’t fit in the budget, I read them again. And again.
I have never been able to tame what C.S. Lewis once called that “narrative lust”–the burning desire to get through a book quickly and just know what happens, for goodness’ sake!
But I neither have I gotten over the need, and, yes, I do think of it as a need–to re-read and re-read and re-read books that have been important to me for one reason or another.
And that, to me, is one kind of Slow Reading.
I am not interested in achieving entlistungsfreude (a fabulous German word meaning the satisfaction afforded by crossing things off lists) as I work through some externally imposed reading list. I want, instead, to be transported to the world that the author has created, to spaces where my soul feels at home–spaces like The Beach House, that remind me who I am, and whose I am, and where I’ve come from, and where I’d like to go, and where I’d rather not go (namely, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s house). That same desire for transport moves me to write.
The Beach House still stands, rickety and puny-looking alongside the ostentatious monstrosities dominating the once open dunes. They offer many, many things that might pull one’s gaze from the page. I may be judging them unfairly, but they do not look to me like good places for slow reading, or, really, for slow anything. They are monuments to a culture of more and more and more–a culture in which a working woman’s saved-up cash can no longer buy her a quiet getaway near the ocean, a place to rest and read. The people who live in those homes wouldn’t find it much more of a stretch to buy a whole chain of Book Hamptons than my mother found it to buy me a few paperbacks.
For me, Slow Reading is reading that tends the soul. It is not about crossing titles off a list of books one “ought” to have read or “must” read; it is not about being perceived as erudite or, in fact, about being perceived as anything in particular.
Slow Reading is what drives a 50-something-year-old working man with an 8th grade education to read his daughter’s college textbooks just to have something to mull over on his long daily walks.
Slow Reading is what keeps a child curled around a book in a patch of diminishing sunlight until the need for food or for sleep pulls them away.
It is reading that tends the soul the way my own grandmother now guards her humble little Beach House–not as something to flaunt, but because it is a place of shelter and comfort, a place redolent with memories both sweet and bitter. It is a shelter in what used to be one kind of wilderness–and may well now be another kind altogether.
Slow reading can do this for us, if we let it. We can open a book and find riches we couldn’t have imagined–any more than Katherine could have known that Gwyneth Paltrow might one day eye her little sandy plot with envy.
There is in all of us a longing for we-know-not-what. When I think of The Beach House and all that has changed about it, I long for the open dunes that I never knew. But that soul-hunger, that sehnsucht, as C.S. Lewis called it, can be fed when I read–slow, not fast.
It opens doors that I might have ceased to hope existed.
Do you like this room, Rachel?
I like it very much, Grandma.
Read an excerpt from Rachel Marie Stone’s EAT WITH JOY (IVP Books, 2013).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com