I am flying today, traveling to California for work, and reading Thomas Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading. I struggled initially to make that deep connection with the text—you know that feeling? It reminds me of a runner’s high. Often hits you about a quarter of the way through a book and draws you in and you don’t want to stop. I wasn’t there yet with The Art of Slow Reading. In fact, I was ready to abandon it.
Until I read a passage in which Newkirk quotes from a letter written by a civil war soldier to his wife:
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
I stopped and reread. Took a deep breath and remembered the woman I met on my earlier flight this morning. She wanted to talk—I didn’t really. Rarely do on airplanes anymore plus I was tired and not feeling well. But, I tried to listen. I don’t know her name. She was the flight attendant whose jump seat was across from my exit row seat.
She shared that her husband of 29 years died suddenly six weeks ago. She is already back at work as she needs the income. She described being alone with him in her house and holding him as he died at 12:59 at night. His body went from warm to ice cold in a manner of seconds. It took the ambulance several hours to arrive and she just held him. She described visiting his grave on Mother’s Day and leaving flowers for him. She said she was hardly sleeping and, when she did, her sleep was full of dreams of him. I was at a loss for words.
Then I read this quote in Newkirk’s book and I know that she feels this way about her husband—in fact, thinking that he is always near her is what enables her to remind us to put our seatbelts on and turn off our phones, and then deliver our sodas. Newkirk closes the chapter with this comment about the letter, “It is writing that assures us, ‘I am with you.’ You are not alone. We hear this voice; we cannot rush over these words; we feel the writer’s struggle to comfort. And it breaks your heart.”
The poignancy of this passage on the heels of my conversation hooked me and drew me back into The Art of Slow Reading. My personal connection with Newkirk’s words made me want to read more. Let’s not lose the power of the personal connection with books in our classrooms.
Isabel McLean is a national education consultant at Developmental Studies Center