It's fitting that Bill McClung should defer to the written word when attempting to describe the idea behind Slow Reading Dinners, the more-or-less monthly series he runs at University Press Books (2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). Specifically, the preface to the 1886 edition of The Dawn, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "Philology" — that is, the study of classical Greek and Latin, but McClung interprets it more broadly — "is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento," Neitzsche wrote. "Philology ... teaches how to read well: i.e., slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes."
It's a heady passage, but McClung is a heady guy. Not for nothing does University Press Books, which McClung helped found, give itself the tagline "Ten Thousand Minds on Fire." (In 2009, this newspaper declared it the "best bookstore for really smart people" in our annual Best of the East Bay issue, a distinction McClung wears proudly.) For McClung — and University Press Books — reading is more than just a pastime, or even a profession. It's the lens through which he sees the world. And it's out of this philosophy that Slow Reading Dinners was born last January, with the general idea of applying the ethos and the intentionality of the slow-food movement to books. Or, in McClung's words, giving guests "a chance to slow down and enjoy things in this hectic world we live in." He and co-host Martin Holden keep the dinners small enough to fit around the bookstore's big, black-tiled table. Food is provided by Erick Balbuena — the chef at the Musical Offering, University Press Books' acclaimed in-house cafe — and conversation by what McClung calls a cast of "wandering intellectuals and readers:" graduate and undergraduate students, academics and editors from the university, and local bookworms and eggheads of all stripes. Guests are asked to bring a passage they love to read aloud; most people read from novels, but others read poetry, plays, philosophy, short stories — even the US Constitution. From there, the conversation can, and usually does, spin out broadly and quickly, with the only rule being that there are no side conversations allowed. "It's very convivial," McClung said. "You get to hear these wonderful words from great writers passing through the voices of people you may or may not know." In this sense, it's less structured than a book club, but more focused than your typical dinner party, where, McClung said, "very bright people would be having very loud conversations with the people next to them." With Slow Reading Dinners, he continued, "it's very calm and slow and interesting, and then it ends." In other words, it's meant to be savored — just like a great meal, or a really fantastic novel. Tuesday, Oct. 18, 6 p.m., $40 per person (includes wine, food, tax, and gratuity) or $15 for "students and starving artists." RSVP required; e-mail Outreach@UniversityPressBooks.com or stop by the bookstore's front counter. 510-548-0585 or UniversityPressBooks.com