Monday, May 02, 2011


Jonathan A. Allan

I have been thinking about time recently, more specifically, as a virginity scholar, the first time. This post is very much about an idea that is growing slowly, too slowly. Throughout my doctoral studies, I have had the great fortune of studying under the supervision of some really engaging academics, namely, my supervisor who has been writing about some of the ideas that are floating around in my mind. My supervisor is also a fan of “experimental teaching” methods and thus when we, as a class, read Proust, none of us had read Proust. What would happen if a group of students and the professor had never read the text being considered?

To these ends, I have been thinking about the question of slowness and reading, writing, living, etc. Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed observes that:

These days, the whole world is time-sick. We all belong to the same cult of speed. Standing in that lineup for my flight home to London, I begin with the questions that lie at the heart of this book: Why are we always in such a rush? What is the cure for time-sickness? Is it possible, or even desirable, to slow down?” (3)

These questions strike me as provocative and worthy of consideration. Why does time have such an influence over quotidian life and how does one overcome the cult of time/speed? One of the most striking examples from his book, or perhaps only striking because of the space from which I write, is when he writes:

In 2000, David Cottrell and Mark Layton published 175 Way to Get More Done in Less Time. Written in breathless, get-on-with-it prose, the book is a manual for maximizing efficiency, for acceleration. Tip number 141 is simply: “Do Everything Faster!”

And in those three words, the authors neatly sum up what is wrong with the modern world. Think about it for a minute: Do Everything Faster. Does it really make sense to speed-read Proust, make love in half the time or cook every meal in the microwave? Surely not, but the fact that someone could write the words “Do Everything Faster” underlines just how far we have gone off the rails, and how urgently we need to rethink our whole way of life. (36)

I find his challenge interesting precisely because, like the author, I have this compulsion to do things quickly – read the book quickly, write the lecture quickly. But aren't there things that we want to slow down so as to prolong our enjoyment of them, our experience of them?

Romance novels, however, at least those that I have been reading lately about a virgin’s first time, seem to thrive on this slowness. We are slowly led through the development of the relationship between the protagonists. If one looks at a novel like Last Virgin in California by Maureen Child or The 39-Year-Old Virgin by Marie Ferrarella or The Last Male Virgin by Katherine Deauxville, things often move slowly, glacially so, in the novel. The hero or the heroine will realise that, as Anke Bernau writes in Virgins: A Cultural History, "virginity is not so much a fixed state or condition, as a journey one must undertake" (67). The whole point of the novel is the very long journey involved in losing one’s virginity, indeed, a very slow process. The paradox of romance reading, however, is that most readers read quickly (as Janice Radway noted in Reading the Romance). Regardless, I am interested in the idea of slowness whether it be in the act of reading (reading slowly) or in the act of narration (slowing down narrative). The paradox noted above seems like an interesting place to begin when we think about speed, slowness, and romance reading (of course, there is also something to be said about romance writing and slowness, but that is perhaps best left for another time).

Honoré's book covers many areas of concern ranging from food to medicine, work, leisure, sex, cities, and mind body. Perhaps, however, I can take comfort when Honoré writes:

Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical. It is what we do under pressure, when the clock is ticking; it is the way computers think and the way the modern workplace operates; it delivers clear solutions to well-defined problems. Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and we have the time to let ideas simmer at their own pace on the back burner. It yields rich and subtle insights. (120)

To these ends, I continue to think -- too slowly for my liking -- about the very notion of speed, reading, and, in particular, slowness and romance.


  1. In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that

    Time in our culture is a valuable commodity. It is a limited resource that we use to accomplish our goals. Because of the way that the concept of work has developed in modern Western culture, where work is typically associated with the time it takes and time is precisely quantified, it has become customary to pay people by the hour, week, or year. In our culture TIME IS MONEY in many ways: telephone message units, hourly wages, hotel room rates, yearly budgets, interest on loans, and paying your debt to society by "serving time." These practices are relatively new in the history of the human race, and by no means do they exist in all cultures. They have arisen in modern industrialized societies and structure our basic everyday activities in a very profound way. Corresponding to the fact that we act as if time is a valuable commodity - a limited resource, even money - we conceive of time that way. Thus we understand and experience time as the kind of thing that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved, or squandered.
    TIME IS MONEY, TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, and TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY are all metaphorical concepts. They are metaphorical since we are using our everyday experiences with money, limited resources, and valuable commodities to conceptualize time. This isn't a necessary way for human beings to conceptualize time; it is tied to our culture. There are cultures where time is none of these things.

    Part of the reason that we're expected to spend our time wisely is that we're supposed to invest it in self-improvement, so that we become more marketable commodities in the labor market: we can "sell" ourselves more easily if our CV is full of achievements.

    As for virginity, it seems to be a commodity with a somewhat undefined sell-by-date. It can be sold, given or taken and its value seems to vary depending on the age, gender, appearance etc of the container. According to Baumeister and Vohs:

    A heterosexual community can be analyzed as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. Societies will therefore define gender roles as if women are sellers and men buyers of sex. Societies will endow female sexuality, but not male sexuality, with value (as in virginity, fidelity, chastity). The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple's decisions may be influenced by market conditions.

    [I've blogged a bit about this, and the "rake" in romance.]

    Given the way that the metaphors which govern the way we think about time and sex are so deeply engrained, and so thoroughly intertwined with market values, changing the way people think and feel about them is likely to be very, very difficult.

  2. Do you know about the Long Now Foundation? I think I first learned about it by way of Brian Eno, a board member. They have a Facebook page, too. Their statement of purpose:

    The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

  3. There is renewed interest in Britain in planting black walnut trees, which will only benefit future generations. It's mostly with an eye to increasing the value of the land, but still, better than a quick profit mentality.

    On reading, I know some romance readers who speed read,and that's always felt peculiar to me. There are many times that I wish a could speed read non-fiction, because all I want from that particular book is the meat and I'm having to dig the "good bits" out of a pile of words that add nothing. (That doesn't mean that all non-fiction is like that, of course.)

    But for me the correct reading time of good fiction is part of the magic. Pacing is the rhythm that elevates a novel from good to great. Like many readers I will slow down when I'm reading a really good book to make it last.

    I don't think this has anything to do with physical virginity, however. The novel could just as well be about a rake and a whore if the author is making that exploration work for me. It could easily be about two widowers.

    A romance novel is always about the exploration and vulnerability of new intimacy, or a newly discovered intimacy after alienation. In my most recent romance, the heroine was still a virgin at the end --which might be a first for a sexy historical romance!


  4. Thank you all for these comments and ideas -- all very helpful. I am still working through these ideas.