Summer harvests are in full swing, as are all kinds of inspired cooking. This time of year, Mother Earth doesn’t just entice us to stop and smell the roses; she invites us to savor the tomatoes, pick the berries, shuck the corn, and make those pies, pickles, and sauces. It is time to compose meals from greenmarkets, farm stands, and our own gardens. It is time for slow food.
But “slow food” – a movement emphasizing local agriculture, livestock, and cuisines – is not just a literal concept. It is also figurative – a handy metaphor to describe the great pleasures and rewards of unplugging from the hustle and bustle of our fast-food culture. More than ever, summer is a wonderful time to surrender – to fruit, to flowers, and to the power and pleasure of a good, long book.
Whereas we once complained about the “twenty-four-hour news cycle,” social media platforms like Twitter have introduced 140-character news cycles – scandal after scandal tossed into an amnesiac abyss at an ever-increasing rate and with ever-decreasing reflection. And while television shows were once one-time-only “watercooler events,” movies were destination entertainment, and the news was reserved for the morning paper or the evening telecast, now a constant stream of video and written content can be viewed on our phones as we wait for the dentist or pretend to listen to friends and family members.
The problem is that, just as a fast-food diet has a toxic effect on our bodies and environment, fast-food arts and news gravely compromises our mental and spiritual health.
It’s hard to believe now, but when hyper-processed food first hit markets, it was heralded as a miraculously efficient nutrient delivery system and a way to liberate American housewives from the kitchen. Only when the uptick of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease became undeniable did we start to accept that fast food created more problems than solutions. Similarly, our country is in an infancy period when it comes to regulating our intake of media and technology. We still have no idea of how the glut of undigested information afforded by new platforms will affect us in the long term.
In the short term, most of us are nervous and numb. It’s as though we’ve hit a point of saturation that has left us both undernourished and stuffed to the gills, especially since a certain Tweeter-in-Chief took office. We have become reactive rather than proactive, short-tempered and short-sighted, and almost incapable of focusing on one task at a time. It seems clear we need to lower the volume of daily life so that we can reduce the static and hear our true selves. But how?
Sure, those with deep pockets can scoot off to a meditation retreat in some exotic locale, and those with distinctly luddite sensibilities can disappear off the grid entirely. But for the rest of us, a slow food approach to arts and literature might do the trick. We need to set time aside every week, if not every day, to listen to whole albums. Visit actual museums. And we need to lay aside our multiple screens and surrender to whole books, especially of fiction or poetry.
It has been said by some that the current leader of the free world never reads books. If this is true, it is not surprising, for reading requires the deference of our ego and agenda so that we may fully absorb another’s reality. To read a novel is to climb into someone else’s imagination – their diction, their pace, their choices, their values, their built world. To read poetry is to hold a magnifying glass to the multitudes contained by every moment. (Thank you, Walt Whitman.) Whether we’re rhapsodizing over that madeleine with Proust, tsk-tsking over male-female congress with Jane Austen, suffering with Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, sifting through the Detroit 1967 riot with Philip Levine via They Feed They Lion, literature slows our heartbeats, cools our tempers, lengthens our attention spans, and stills our minds. It builds emotional and intellectual flexibility and strength, and it endows us with greater empathy and patience. Above all, it trains us to practice a radical receptivity to the worlds within and around us.
If we’re to transform our current dystopia, we must attain a better understanding of ourselves and each other. We must appreciate the nuance of every conflict and the struggle of every character. For we can no longer slouch to Bethlehem. We must read our way there with a slow and deliberate grace.