The Slow Movement and Literature

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I have written elsewhere about the Slow Movement and education – see here and here, for example – but today I want to consider the Slow Movement and literature. Reading quality literature, we might argue, is now an act of counter-cultural resistance. It takes time. It makes demands on the reader. It is a commitment to delayed gratification. That is why encouraging children to read can be such hard work. Unless we challenge the culture, we are bound to struggle in the battle for books.

Sometimes books themselves encapsulate this struggle. Take Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, for example. Tree-ear is a homeless orphan in 12th Century Korea who is captivated by the work of Min, a master potter. Persuading the potter to take him on as an assistant, he is appalled to discover that he cannot simply sit at the wheel and create fine pots but must first – slowly – learn how to chop wood, how to cut and drain clay, how to be a true apprentice. He learns and grows but not in the way he had originally expected.

Donna Tartt’s Hobie in The Goldfinch shares many of the characteristics of Linda Sue Park’s Min.

Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies there was no television; he read old novels with marbled end papers; he didn’t own a cell phone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM, was the size of a suitcase and useless. In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a chisel, and his happy absorption floated up from the workshop and diffused through the house with the warmth of a wood-burning stove in winter. Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies there was no television; he read old novels with marbled end papers; he didn’t own a cell phone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM, was the size of a suitcase and useless. In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a chisel, and his happy absorption floated up from the workshop and diffused through the house with the warmth of a wood-burning stove in winter.

The Goldfinch is a novel that challenges time and concepts of time, and not simply because it takes a long time to read. In writing about history and memory, Donna Tartt offers a 771-page rebuke to industrial time. And so does Hobie. As a craftsman, he refuses to accept the temporal logic of industrial processes, which is one reason why he seems such an admirable character to Theo. However, Donna Tartt is also careful not to make him a dreamy romantic either. He is fully aware of the dangers in his chosen profession:

Where’s the nobility in patching up a bunch of old tables and chairs? Corrosive to the soul, quite possibly. I’ve seen too many estates not to know that. Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only – if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty?

There are dangers but possibilities too. He gets to the heart of literature’s task – and the Slow Movement’s too – to lead us from beautiful things to some larger beauty.

 

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