Monday, June 4, 2012

The Joy of a Slow Read


Maybe you have memories like mine, of waking to the delicious sound of voices at the kitchen table.

When I was a child my grandparents would come to visit, often at this time of year, and often arriving at night while I slept. They were retired, and always seemed schedule-less, beyond the basic schedules of grooming, coffee, meals and naps. Their days were all sabbaths, or so it seemed.

My mother would take time off from work when they came, so their gentle rhythms would, for a time, become our rhythms. When I woke, the voices coming from the kitchen were thoughtful and unhurried, filtered through chuckles and quiet pauses. I don't remember exactly what they talked about, but it seems like the topics ran more to the conceptual than the pragmatic. Politics, yes, but in broader terms. My sister and me, naturally, but about the sorts of people we were growing to be.

When we visited them it was the same, but at night, we would join them in the unfenced area between their house and those of two neighbors. We'd all set our lawn chairs under the clothes line, look up at the stars, and talk. My great uncle, who read a lot (I am getting around to talking about books), showed me constellations, and told me which stars were really planets, how unfathomably distant they all were. Curiosity and attention were my childhood luxuries, but in these slow moments, they became the order of the day.

I'm about a third into a book titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It recounts her observations of a common snail that lived in a terrarium beside her bed during her year-long convalescence following a mysterious illness.

It's not a page turner, not in the sense we usually mean. There are no heart-stopping moments, no smoking guns.

It is wondrously compelling. Reading it feels like listening to voices at the kitchen table, looking at stars with my great uncle who read a lot. Forced by an illness into an abundance of unstructured time, Bailey received a message to pass on to us, that each moment, each detail, the tiniest creature is fascinating if we take the time to look. I treasure books that remind me that time exists, and that there is enough of it to allow for curiosity and attention.

"Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink. Sometimes it started back up, only to stop at a halfway point and go to sleep. Waking periodically, and without moving from its position, it would stretch its neck all the way down to the water and take a long drink."

Annie Dillard writes books like that. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all the permission you will ever need to lavish time on each microbe of creation.

"It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"

There are other books that do the same. I pulled Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea from my grandmother's bookshelf when I was twelve. A bit young, perhaps, to begin thinking what sort of adult one wants to become, but I began to think of it then.

"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible."

You may have noted that all these books are memoirs, not fiction, and for good reason. Fiction doesn't lend itself to leisurely exploration. Novels need things like conflict, suspense, and tension. Most readers, I'm told, skip over novels that are described as "meditative," or "contemplative." We want our stories to pull us through on a cord of anxiety. Yikes! Oh no! What will the character do now?

The only novel I know of that has managed to finesse the narrative arc in a voice straight out of those lawn chairs under the stars is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's the reason I consider this the most perfect novel I've ever read, because its author understands so well:

"This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it." 

Now please tell us about the books that have inspired you to pay attention. Extra points if that book is a novel.

We love to read what you have to say.

17 comments:

S. F. Foxfire said...

When I was in fifth grade, I read a novel called "Drowning Ruth" by Christina Schwarz. The story took its time with lots of heavily described flashbacks and flash forwards and multiple points of view. I'm 20 now, but the first line of the book still sticks with me: "Ruth remembered drowning."

It was a heavy read for someone my age, but the imagery--the barren colds of a Great Lakes winter, the grief of losing loved ones, the anguish of handing over a lover to a foe--it all gonged in my heart. Life, in that moment, became as real and as poignant as a pinprick of a red-hot needle coated with lemon juice. The book made me sit back and consider life in ways I had never thought of before, and it sparked my thirst to explore the lives of people I'll never physically meet in novels as I myself became a writer.

K.A. Nerat said...

ONE FINE DAY a novel by Mollie Panter-Downes, written in 1946, pub in 1947. Fits the slow read delight perfectly. To quote the intro, she has the "ability to grasp her reader through means of atmosphere, mood, & philosophical reflection rather than plot". There are dashes of humor, quick studies of characters in her small town, acute observations of the deep forever changes that WWII has made in her world (as wife, mother, social being) as she makes her way through a gorgeous full-bloom summer day. A joyful, thoughtful read and as pertinent today as when it was written.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I went through a Dostoevsky phase in high school. I love how I was forced to pay close attention to follow the plot and the characters (each with 25 nicknames). I'm typically a slow reader (I like to let the words inch into my brain). However, reading Dostoevsky forced me to slow down even more, to chew of each word, to construct each scene in my mind.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I just finished Ron Hansen's 'Mariette in Ecstasy' and I felt this way through the first half of the book. The pacing reflected the orderliness and predictability of convent life and I felt myself slowing down on the inside. It became a page-turner midpoint when the miraculous is doubted and refuses to be confirmed or explained away.

Kathleen Popa said...

S.F., it sounds like you were indeed a precocious reader. Hooray! We're glad you're hanging around here.


K.A., One Fine day sounds like a great book. I think books like this are perfect for a summer day, don't you? Thank you for joining us.

Susie, a Dostoevsky phase in high school. I'm sensing a pattern here. What a geeky lot we all were - and are! I'm a slow reader, too. I hate to miss things.

Patti Hill said...

Love this post, Katy. As I'm perusing my bookcase, I'm seeing lots of novels there that, like Debbie's Mariette in Ectasy, slow us down on the inside. I think I talk about those novels on Wednesday. Thanks for opening this conversation, Katy.

BTW, I didn't have a Dostoevsky phase in high school. Dare I confess? I had a Victoria Holt manic stage--but it didn't last long. I promise. The story lines became too familiar.

Bonnie Grove said...

It's good to be among other slow readers. I went to a school that, because I was big for my age and read slowly, deemed me "remedial".

I'm still remedial--still inching through books and fighting the impatience a string of teachers half planted in my mind. Kicking at the hurry up.

Reading is the best place for this war. Sure footed on the world of words, I most often win the battle for slow paced contemplation, pondering the meaning even of single words.

Give me a novel that causes me to lower the book to my lap, look out the window and wonder, all without leaving the story.

Kathleen Popa said...

Debbie, I'm so glad you enjoyed Mariette. Just the opening lines are enough to slow your breath:

Upstate New York.  
August 1906.  
Half-moon and a wrack of gray clouds.  
Church windows and thirty nuns singing the Night Office in Gregorian chant. Matins. Lauds. And then silence.  
Wind, and a nighthawk teetering on it and yawing away into woods.  
Wallowing beetles in green pond water.   T
oads.  
Cattails sway and unsway.  
Grape leaves rattle and settle again.  
Workhorses sleeping in horse manes of pasture.  
Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.  
Limestone pebbles on the paths in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus.  
Mother CĂ©line gracefully walking, head down.  
Crickets.  
Mooncreep and spire.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, my manic stage was Gothic romances, too. And like you, I quit when I started knowing what would happen before it happened.

Bonnie, yes, yes yes! I love that sort of novel, too.

Sorry about the teachers. I had a few like that, too.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, yeah! The "I can't read anymore because it's just too good" type of novel. Yes, Bonnie. That is a good, tender thing.

Megan Sayer said...

I've had to learn to slow down in my reading. I was never one to sit and savour the meaning of a sentence, to my loss. However, my speed, coupled with synaesthesia (which I've only recently been able to name) helps evoke new senses in books that may not have been intended by the author - colours and feelings and moods and sensory impressions that spring from the words themselves that are sometimes independent of their meaning. Makes me love surprising word juxtapositions in books. It's probably why I struggle more to finish non-fiction books that aren't narrative too : )

Karen Schravemade said...

Tim Winton's "Dirt Music". Poetry in every line.

I finished that book then opened a Word doc and typed out every sentence that made me stop and catch my breath. There were pages' worth. He's a writer so gifted that even the ugly and gritty things take on a certain beauty because of the words he uses to evoke them.

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I had to look up synaesthesia. Wow, I wonder, is that a handicap or something else? Does it make your life more difficult, more interesting, or both?

Karen, Dirt Music sounds great. Did you really have to add another book to my to-read list? Oh - I guess I asked for this, didn't I?

Lori Benton said...

Megan, I think having synaethesia is a blessing. I can't imagine what it would be like if letters and numbers and names and days of the week, months of the year, decades, centuries, and hours in the day suddenly lost their colors.

Although I confess that as a child I took forever to understand that the 17th century was NOT the 1700s. And the 18th century was NOT the 1800s. How could they not be, my child self rebelliously wondered. Their colors match!

I didn't learn that I had synaethesia until I was in my twenties. I find I'm attracted to certain character names because of the colors, or perhaps a certain spelling of a name. Sometimes a name simply will not fit a character because it's warm, and the character is not.

Sorry to hijack the comments about this subject ladies, but it's rare to find someone who shares this oddity. :)

And to get it back on track, I liked Bonnie's statement about books that make you lower them to your lap while you stare off... at the clothes spinning in the laundromat dryer, in my case. This is often where it happens. I love books that make me savor them. James Alexander Thom's books do that for me, while also providing plenty of plot and action too.

Kathleen Popa said...

Lori, you too? You ladies are making me very curious.

Megan Sayer said...

LORI!!! That's so exciting! The only other person I've discussed the condition with is my daughter, because one day she asked me what colour I thought my name was, so I told her. This was only last year. I mentioned the conversation to a friend who asked "do you have synaesthesia?" which is the first I'd heard of it. You don't talk about things like that usually, you just presume that it happens to everyone. I'd love to chat with you about that more Lori - especially how it influences your writing.

Katy it's definitely a blessing. It's like having an extra sense, extra information streaming into you about things. Although the down-side is that I've read chunks of books from time to time and remembered only the sensory impressions, and NOT what actually happened. Maybe I read books fast so that I don't get distracted by the words : )

Megan Sayer said...

And Katy...PLEASE go read some Tim Winton. I think you'd fall in love as much as Karen and I have with him. I didn't enjoy Dirt Music as much as I did The Riders though. And The Riders is set in Ireland. You must go read it!