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The Pleasures of a Big Fat Book

Lately, I've enjoyed giving greater attention to what I eat and where it comes from. I've canned fresh local tuna, grown leafy greens and purple potatoes in my garden, baked fresh breads, learned the stories of my apples and berries, and generally taken a slow-food approach to nourishing my body. But last fall, I realized that I've been taking far less care with my mind. Increasingly, I've been reading on the internet. It's all great stuff: New York TImes op eds, articles from The Atlantic, a few favorite blogs that invariably bring me to new websites, an audio or video clip here or there, and, of course, emails. Like a bee, I flit about sipping different nectars in the stimulating world of cyberspace, usually too late at night for my own good. But there's a downside. I used to read about 50 books a year. Now I'm down to about 20. I had the vague sense of feeling somewhat scattered, but I didn't realize the extent of it until I returned to my reading roots and started a big fat book. The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen had been sitting on my to-read shelf for about three years. Even though I wanted to read it, I kept avoiding it because, frankly, it was so darned long. I kept choosing shorter books and a growing diet of internet hors d'ouevres and snacks. Last fall, I finally mustered the courage to tackle it. When I opened the book for the first time, I flipped to the back. Yes, there were really 625 pages of text plus more of epilogue, glossary, notes, and appendices to bring the grand total to over 700. With a deep breath, I began, and within a few opening paragraphs, my anxiety dissipated. I was engrossed. Quammen's book is magisterial. He weaves together adventure, travel, history, natural history, and big ideas of science, and then reveals them to be deeply relevant to the ominous modern catastrophe of extinction. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in nature. But aside from the book's compelling content, I found myself utterly delighted by the experience of reading a big book again. The sturdy hardback fell open in my hands in an easy way. The book's weighty body felt good to hold. I enjoyed the reader's ritual of choosing a lovely bookmark to hold my place as I progressed through the long work. I didn't devour the book in a gluttonous rush but parceled out a few chapters at a time. Now and then, I dipped into other books for a change of pace. I didn't take it with me on a two-week trip to New England because it was too big and heavy. Yet while I was gone, I missed it. I picked it back up as soon as I returned. It was as I read this hefty book that I realized my brain was entering a very different space. Rather than bopping around in a scattershot fashion, I was drawn to focus. I was on a path carefully crafted for me by a brilliant writer. It would tramp along and then build to some overlook, only to descend into another canyon of questions. One had to read through several chapters of spiders, komodo dragons, and ever evolving gyrations of scientific thought to reach a higher summit of understanding. Only then was I ready for the next part of the adventure. The tome demanded my attention and diligence. Reading it was a regular practice. Each time I picked up the big book I found myself on the monumental journey once again. Entering its space of stories and ideas was a balm and a boost for a mind wearied by daily doses of bad news. Every day, I found myself looking forward to a quiet eddy in the evening when I could pick it up and enter into its other world. In the process of reading, my mind was recalibrated. I finished about two and a half months after I'd started. Turning the final page and reading the last paragraph was a milestone not only in the story of the book but also in my life as a reader. I felt as if I had lived through a significant experience. By reading, I'd traveled all over the globe, discovered wondrous new creatures, and met the great minds and ideas of biology—all over the course of three centuries. I knew far more about the world than I had when I started. I heaved a deep breath and sat quietly, trying to absorb the import of it all. In these fast-paced times, when readers' attention spans are shrinking like puddles in the sun, publishers say the market demands shorter and pithier books. Some even look ahead and wonder if books' days are numbered. To lose big books would be tragic. Reading a great fat book is a classic quality experience. There is nothing like it. In fact, a revival of book reading may be just what's needed in light of the current economic downturn. Books remain an unparalleled "technology" for engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment. Compared to a movie, concert, or a play, reading a book is a great deal, and compared to internet surfing, it offers a deeper, more meaningful experience. In the same way many of us have chosen to nourish our bodies with more "slow foods," I'd like to see a similar attention given to how we nourish our minds—a shift toward slow and quality in the realm of reading. To match the slow food movement, we need a slow food-for-thought movement. Next, I am on to Callum Roberts' award-winning book The Unnatural History of the Sea, and I am looking forward to each of its 377 pages. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Ann VileisisAnn Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.