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On the evening of February 1st, 1924, the New York Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch. Thankfully for those who couldn’t attend, the performance was broadcast live on the radio. A couple of days later, the orchestra received a stunning letter of thanks from the unlikeliest of sources: Helen Keller, a renowned author and activist who had been deaf and blind from a young age. It can be read below. Eight years later, Keller wrote an equally evocative letter in which she described the view from atop the Empire State Building.
Click to read her text: Letters of Note: My heart almost stood still
1. E-books: “That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
2. Smartphones: “Great allies and enablers of narcissism.”
3. The Internet: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”
4. Cats: “the sociopaths of the pet world.”
5. Experimental fiction: “It’s also in my Protestant nature, however, to expect some reward for this work.”
6. Schmaltzy fiction: “I cringe, myself.”
7. Michiko Kakutani: “the stupidest person in New York City.”
8. Insipid Broadway musical adaptations: “instantly overpraised.”
9. Author videos: “This might be a good place for me to register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this.”
The phrase “slow reading” goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 described himself as a “teacher of slow reading.” The way he phrased it, you know he thought he was bucking the tide. That makes sense, because the modern world, i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good and faster is better, was just getting up a full head of steam. In the century and a quarter since he wrote, we have seen the world fall in love with speed in all its guises, including reading—part of President John F. Kennedy’s legend was his ability to speed read through four or five newspapers every morning. And this was all long before computers became household gadgets and our BFFs.
Now and then the Nietzsches of the world have fought back. Exponents of New Criticism captured the flag in the halls of academe around the middle of the last century and made “close reading” all the rage. Then came Slow Food, then Slow Travel, then Slow Money. And now there is Slow Reading. In all these initiatives, people have fought against the velocity of modern life by doing … less and doing it slower.
Malcolm Jones, on the Slow Reading movement