Last week I pulled from my shelf a weathered, vintage edition of “Charlotte’s Web” and began reading it to my 5-year-old.
It seemed the perfect introduction to summer, to read aloud this timeless classic of a pig, a spider and a barnyard full of animals.
We don’t meet Charlotte, the book’s namesake, until chapter 4, and the story meanders a bit in the beginning, and I keep thinking how this book would never be published today, not in its current form at least. I think that is a shame. In my opinion, slow books are a beautiful necessity in today’s blockbuster culture.
Which is why, as a matter of principle, I’ve decided to dedicate the entire summer of 2014 to slow fiction. Slow fiction, in my mind, includes the somewhat old-fashioned (and new-fashioned) children’s books and literary classics, the kind of books that sat on my bedside table as a kid and now gather dust on my boys’ shelves until I tease them out and give them life.
My summer goal is in direct contrast to what we typically think of as the “beach read,” those stories light and insubstantial as cotton candy. The beach read is quick, superficial and flimsy enough that we don’t care about lodging sand and seashells between its pages.
There is certainly a place for the beach read, but summer seems a perfect space for the patience and quiet that must be given to slower books. Unharried by school schedules, we have the time to make our way through the meandering stories of old.
I kicked off the summer by reading Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. It is a fictionalized, book-length letter written by a preacher to his young son.
The story is so slow, it took me five attempts over two years to make my way to the end. It is the absolute opposite of a beach read. It’s one of those books that lowers your heart rate just by holding it. It reads like a riverboat ride, slow and meandering, without blip, action or fury. Consider the following passage on page 9:
“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.”
The entire book reads like that, delicate as a ripening bubble, yet when you finish you feel as if you’ve been privy to a most sacred journey. That’s the power of the slow book. It is a meditation. It raises questions that can’t be answered in a moment, but must be turned over and over, like a smoothed beach stone.
A few weeks ago, my boys and I finished listening to “The Island of the Blue Dolphins,” another children’s classic from my childhood. It is the story of an Aleutian girl who gets left behind on her island for several years before getting rescued by a foreign ship. It’s a book I dog-eared as a child, along with all the other books about lone children in the wilderness (ie: “My Side of the Mountain”; “Hatchet”).
Like “Charlotte’s Web,” I am quite certain it would never be published today, even with its impeccable writing and flashes of action. Yet my kids loved it. It might not be one they would ever pick up off the shelf, but that’s where I relish my role as Chief Curator of Literature for our family. I am constantly putting books in front of kids. If they don’t stick, I read them aloud or find them on tape because there are certain books I feel every child should read on that great journey to adulthood.
Do yourself a favor this summer. Find yourself a good, slow book. Find another to read aloud to your family. Give yourself space and permission to read them. They may take you more than a summer. You might make a few false starts. However, I guarantee that the books, and the journeys you take with them, will be a gift that stays with you long after you close their pages.