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.