Slow Info: Where Libraries, Reading, and Well-Being Converge

Like when you lie down in the forest and look up at the trees.

Most people would agree that the level of stress is high in our society; many are worried about the present and the future. I posit that part of that anxiety is stoked by the speed at which many of us feel we are expected to absorb and respond to a panoply of information streams. A reaction to this reckless acceleration is the “Slow Information Movement” (SIM), founded by librarian Vanessa Kam, though the term “slow information” has been around since at least 2009. Based on a synthesis of my rudimentary research, “slow information” inclines towards the poles of certain dichotomies:

  • Currency: Enduring over new
  • Latency: More time between inputs over “one thing after another”
  • Density: Higher information density over lower
  • Length: Long-form over short
  • Speed: Deliberate over fast

Alexandra Cain wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s about reading books, taking the time to actually talk to people and — this is the part I love — making time to think.”

If there is a place that can be associated with “slow information” it would be a tie between being in nature and in libraries. Both encourage reflection and peace, contain plenty of the beautiful (and the sublime), and are free to enjoy. As a proponent of slow information, I love them almost equally — libraries have the slight edge, however, because it’s rarely too cold there, and one need not be wary of bears.

So what does well-being have to do with slow information? I’ve already mentioned the surplus of stress brought on by the need to keep up with the tweeters. Well, adopting the tenets of slow information empowers you to stop the deluge. Disconnecting from your feeds, the news, constant phone calls and text messages for a few hours while you sit at the library and read, for example, the ancient wisdom of Seneca, will slow your heart rate and calm your mind. A properly-regulated information diet may, in the long-term, even extend your life.

Moreover, you will be more likely to find a meditative state in which to reflect on your reading, your friends and family, yourself. I posit that cultivating such a state is advantageous in life’s most difficult moments; during a time of decision, isn’t it better to be able to call upon a tranquil bearing than force an overstimulated brain to focus?

The library symbolizes slow information through its insistence on stocking books and providing access to deep web resources, library programs like concerts, poetry readings, book clubs, and critique groups for writers. All of these have the tendency to encourage meaningful connections to subject matter that may not be as scrutable as, say, a throw-away romantic comedy. Close reading books of enduring value is the ultimate exercise of slow information, as described by David Mikics in Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.

Fine for slow information when at leisure, the library also presents the conditions to support the type of effort Cal Newport describes in his book of the same name as “Deep Work”. In its simplest form, deep work is uninterrupted time spent intensely focused on a single, difficult, task. Unless you have a lot of friends that follow you to the library, or settle in a public library near a school in the afternoon, libraries offer a place for tenacious attention. A person who can’t work deeply at home, the office, or a coffee shop, should seek out the benefits of a good library.

All in all, slow information is not complicated. Most of us know implicitly what it means, and some battle valiantly against the onslaught of inputs in an attempt to increase the gravity of their lives. The battle is no battle if radically simplify our motivation and sit as the Zazen masters do. Go to your library and try it, just go in and sit. It’s a challenge to just sit for even fifteen minutes. No matter, the practice is worthwhile. In the meantime, I’ll see you at the library, purposefully making your way through Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy.


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