Great Minds, Great Books, and Slow Life

Great idea!

Is Alfred Russell Wallace in that bag of household names you keep stashed under the kitchen sink?  I’d wager mostly not.  But back in the 19th century, Wallace was on the trail of a great idea: a theory of natural selection.   You may have heard of it.  And you may have heard of the other fellow who, unbeknownst to Russell, was toiling away at the same great idea.  As so often happens in science, this evolutionary discovery arose not from a solitary brain in a vacuum tube, but from two minds bathed in the same pool of previous discoveries and shared modes of thought.

History is full of such moments.   Did Newton or Leibnitz invent calculus?  Should Berliner or Edison get credit for the carbon button microphone?  How did Janssen and  Lockyer both happen to discover helium while viewing the same solar eclipse via two different spectroscopes at different locations?

Who gets the credit?  The prizes?  The fame?  Whose name gets attached to the gadget or element or process or idea?

I’ve been pondering these questions, partly because I’ve been falling asleep every night for weeks to the lovely tune of Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder.  Page after page-turning page, I’ve been loving the stories of Romantic age scientists and their dramas of discovery.  Humphry Davy’s experiments with laughing gas are alone worth the price of the book.  Let’s just say he was thorough.

But I’ve also been pondering them because back in April, I thought I’d launched the Slow Book Movement.  As it turns out, though, founding honors must go to I. Alexander Olchowski, who in a preceding act of genius, founded the Slow Book Movement in upstate New York back in November.   Alex’s aim is “to reawaken modern society to the pleasures of slowing down to read.”

To which I can only say, Huzzah!  I bow to Alex, whose organization will be promoting books for slow reading pleasure.  The first book on the list is his own novel, The Farmer, and 10% of the proceeds from its sale will help support small farmers in Columbia County, NY.  I’m secretly hoping that in time the list might also include nonfiction, since I write it.  And read it.   And love it.  As you know.   In the meantime, I urge you to sign up and support Alex in his work.

When Darwin and Wallace discovered their common, if separate, pursuits, they could have duked it out.   They could have quarreled in public and oiled the political wheels of the scientific world.  They could have gossiped and bad-mouthed and twisted arms and plied their various constituents with expensive cognac in oak-paneled rooms.   Instead, they co-authored a paper on natural selection, and in 1858, in front of the Linnean Society of London, they presented it together.

That sort of generosity doesn’t always make the headlines.  But it’s the spirit in which Alex approached me to let me know about his work.  And it seems entirely in keeping with the Slow Book idea.  Like the Slow Food Movement which inspired us both, the heart of the thing is slowing down and savoring the things that matter.  Like community and sharing and actual books.

So this week, do something generous.  Shop at the farmers market to support your local farmers.    Get your summer reading list together and share it with a friend.  And in the comments this week, let loose with your ideas.  From New York to California, the Slow Book community is open for business.


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10 Responses to “Great Minds, Great Books, and Slow Life”

  1. Tara Seeley Says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if each of our farmer’s markets had a “trade a slow book” table so we could all share our great reads…

    Of course, let’s hope we all keep buying slow books, too…

  2. dr john latham Says:

    My mind is a bit loose at the seams and doesn’t work as well as it did, and I don’t read the great Russian authors (in translation) as much as I once did, but I still believe in great books and reading them quickly or slowly is a great idea. I’ve heard of slow food, so slow books works for me. I hope it gets outside the USA, so we can have a bit of it in the UK!

  3. Lee Says:

    If you’re interested in Wallace, you may want to look at what Welsh actor Ioan Hefin is doing with him:

    As to slow reading, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, I see no reason why we can’t learn to read online work slowly. Most of my fiction assumes that this is at least possible.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I surely hope we can learn to read slowly online. The challenge, though, is that the presence of the internet with its millions of sites, links, hyperlinks, etc.–is training us to jump around. Most folks I’ve talked to have a similar experience: spending time on-line makes slow reading difficult, no matter the medium.

  4. Lee Says:

    I suspect that the emphasis is on ‘training’, which can be redirected once we recognise a problem. For example, one thing I like to do is store what I want to read from a website on my local hard disk; there’s software to help with this. And perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on training kids from a young age to read in different ways electronically. It’s been a good while since I was in school, so I don’t know how much is being done in this regard.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hello, Lee–I don’t know, either, about whether schools are training children to read in different ways. I teach university students, and there’s an enormous range of experiences and approaches to reading out there. I have students who rarely read anything except text messages, and I have students who have large libraries of books they love–and everything in between. But in my conversations with classes, we all recognize that the surfing and skimming encouraged by the way the internet works has made it more and more difficult to concentrate on reading in an engaged and concentrated way. I imagine we’ll be talking a lot more about it in the coming year, and I’ll be figuring out ways to help them a) become aware of their own ways of reading and b) training themselves to read slowly, which to me is not about speed but focus and attention.

  5. Felix Says:

    Just on the point about synchronous discoveries (and after all, is not a slow reading designed for pursuing all issues), we were doing a high school project a few weeks ago in the history of logarithms.

    It was fascinating (for me, not for the boy) to find that, while Napier developed the germ of logarithms, Joost Burgi independently had the same thoughts in Switzerland. But Napier gets the credit because he published first and, probably most importantly, he coined the word “logarithm”.

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