Slow Read Project Highlights Classic Nebraska Novel

July 5, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Artist Barbara Tetenbaum in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of The Cather Foundation)

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It takes some patience, but a new project that leads readers through Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” six pages at a time is underway in Nebraska. “The Slow Read” is the creation of Portland, Oregon-based artist Barbara Tetenbaum. NET’s Jack Williams caught up with her about the project that wraps-up in August. They spoke via Skype.

NET News: Where did the inspiration for The Slow Read come from?

Barbara Tetenbaum: It came mostly from a desire to honor Willa Cather’s novel in its centenary year. I had already been doing projects related to this particular novel for the last eight years, having stumbled on it as kind of a happenchance, wanting to find one book that I could use for a relatively experimental installation project, mapping the experience of a first-time reader as they attempted to understand a novel, trying to see what that would look like.

NET News: These displays that are part of The Slow Read project aren’t flashy or animated, it’s just six pages of the book a day on a monitor in public places. Was that simplicity intentional?

Tetenbaum: It was. I mean, I think the first inspiration I had was to make it an outdoor projection, so it would perhaps be a little bit more flashy, but it would still only be the static image of the traditional book page, so that perhaps the unsuspecting visitor would see this video projection and expect something a little bit more animated, something more flashy, and instead be confronted with really the richness of what it means to read a text and have that experience in their own imagination.

The Slow Read public monitor at Love Library at UNL. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

NET News: When it comes to this project, people have to make it a point to go to these monitors and stop for a few minutes a day to read the six pages. What is it about this kind of ritualistic reading that interests you?

Tetenbaum: Well, first of all, they can read it on the website as well, so they can open the pages each morning on their laptop, or at night if they want. Partly, it was to slow people down. We’re in such an instant gratification, sped-up culture right now. I wanted to create a kind of a daily ritual that would not force people, but promote a deeper reading and a deeper understanding of a smaller bit of culture, instead of trying to load everything up and make it easy. I wanted, with the shared public monitors that you’re talking about, to see what would happen when somebody would stumble on this by chance, but also just that they might run into other readers, that idea that reading is a shared experience. It is something that we think of as solo, but really we’re always connected to this wider community of readers and The Slow Read, because it only gives six pages a day, but it gives those same six pages to everybody on the planet, means that you’re kind of reading in community.

NET News: We’re seeing a huge shift in how we consume media these days and it’s happening quickly. Is this project a commentary on how we view things these days and how we consume books and other information?

Pages of Willa Cather's "My Antonia" displayed at Love Library at UNL. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Tetenbaum: Yes, there is a slight missionary motivation behind this project. I love the idea that this project utilizes today’s media. It’s run by a website. It’s all digitally scanned, but instead of having the spectacle of what a lot of what today’s media is, making us more passive experiencers of spectacle media, we are still given in the end the same double-page spread of text as Cather saw it, with the same invitation to recreate her images and the sounds and her story in the minds of ourselves as readers.

NET News: Did you have a clear idea how this project would work out and how it would be received when you started it?

Tetenbaum: No, I kind of barreled ahead with this idea. Normally I’m an ink on paper printer, a book artist and other kind of visual artist and so working in a public sphere like this, working with a website, working with these small bits of pages a day, was something that I couldn’t use my 35 years of experience to know what this would be like. So I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised by my own reaction. The last week of this project I’ve been getting more and more e-mails as word has been spreading of reactions from people, talking about the surprise of what it means to be cut-off in a way at the end of the six pages, but then to have this kind of anticipation for the next day.

NET News: Where can people here in Nebraska check-out The Slow Read?

Tetenbaum: They can find one of the public sites. Those are in Red Cloud at the Cather Foundation. There’s a site at Union College in Lincoln, at Constellation Studios in Lincoln and also at the Love Library in Lincoln. Otherwise, they can access it on some sort of internet-fed device. They can get it on their iPhone. It will show up as only one page though, so they’ll have to scroll through those single pages, but it’s still the same image from the first edition. Or, for me, the best thing is just bringing it up on my laptop.