Tag: john quincy adams

The Power and Beauty of Slow Books

There are some books that I read quickly. I finish them off in a few hours. There are other books that take longer because they are much longer reads. In December, for instance, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books. Those are really big books, and even at my usual pace, it took me the better part of a week to finish just one of them. Then there are slow books.

Slow books are book that seem almost designed to be read slowly. These are not boring books; I don’t me slow in terms of pacing. Rather, these are books that I need to savor, and that, like a rich chocolate cake, I can’t take in large doses. I call these slow books because it can take months for me to finish one. Take, for instance, my current slow book, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

Each night, before I go to sleep, I read a few of JQA’s diary entries, making my way from the beginning and following along with Adams’ thoughts and opinions as his life progresses. Some nights, I read a single entry, which may be half a page. Other nights, I might read two, three, or more. Usually, I don’t spent more than 10 minutes, but I do think about what Adams writes, occasionally conversing with him in the margins. For instance, the other night I came across this passage in which Adams records his arguments from a debate class at Harvard. Within it he writes:

But when the Passions of the People, conscious of their Liberty and strength are raised, they hurry them into the greatest extremities; an enraged multitude, will consult, but their furry and their Ignorance serves only to increase their Obstinacy, and their Inconsistency.

“From 1787 Adams foresees 2021,” I scribbled in the margin beside this passage. But of course, this isn’t a hard prediction to make if you’ve read a lot of history, and Adams’ certainly had by this point. I’ve read quite a few presidential biographies, and in my own estimation, John Quincy Adams was probably the most intelligent person ever to serve as President of the United States. I don’t say he was the best. His father, John Adams, is my favorite president, but I also don’t consider him nearly the best either. I appreciate JQA’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, however, and also his refection and attempts at self improvement. In another passage, he writes,

I believe I should improve my reading to greater advantage, if I confined myself to one book at a time; but I never can. If a book does not interest me exceedingly it is a test to me to go through it; and I fear for this reason, I shall never get through Gibbon. Indolence, indolence I fear will be my ruin.

In the margin I wrote, “Me, too.” I know just how JQA feels. I should focus on only one book, but there are so many out there, and so little time.

Even while reading other books, each night, I dip into JQA’s diaries and read some more. It is the perfect kind of book to read before bed. It settles my mind. It narrows my focus away from all of the usual distractions of the day. JQA didn’t have constant notifications popping up on his iPhone. Other distractions, perhaps, but not that one. His eyes weren’t glued to screens for the better part of the day. This is why I try to read slow books on paper. The last few minutes before bed are spent off screens, looking at the printing page, scribbling thoughts in the margins. A slow book like this helps clear my head before bed.

How slow is a slow book like this? Well, the 2-volumes in this set (not nearly Adams’ complete diary but representative selections from it) total about 1,400 pages. Some nights I get through half a page, others two or three. Occasionally I skip a night. Call it two pages per night. At that rate, it will take about a year to get through each volume. That’s okay, though. It is something I look forward to before bed each night, and it means that I can put off trying to figure out what my next slow book will be for another two years or so.

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