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Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading
Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading
Isabel Hofmeyr
Harvard University Press, 2013
240 pp., $26.00

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C. Christopher Smith


Gandhi's Printing Press

A surprising story of slow reading—with lessons for the church today.

With the emergence of the Slow Food movement, as well as Slow Money, Slow Cities, and a host of other counterculturally Slow ventures over the last three decades, one might be tempted to assume that such opposition to a culture of speed is a relatively new historical development. The industrial age, however, has since its origins been marked by individuals and groups who have adamantly voiced their opposition to the overweening rise of speed and technology. Journalist Nicols Cox has traced this history in her 2004 book, Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives. One important figure who receives only brief mention in Cox's book is Mohandas Gandhi. In Gandhi's Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, Isabel Hofmeyr recounts a little-known aspect of Gandhi's story that will undoubtedly serve to raise his historical profile as an opponent of fast, industrial culture. Gandhi's Printing Press is, among other things, a monograph in the history and culture of the book, and there are parts of it that do get a bit technical, but a deeper narrative flowing through the work particularly caught my interest, one centered around questions about the practices through which a faith community can resist, or be liberated from, the powers of speed.

Not long after finishing his law degree in London, Gandhi emigrated to South Africa, where he spent more than twenty years (1893-1914). The nonviolent tactics of satyagraha that he would later advocate in leading the Indian people in resistance to the British empire were honed in these early years. Specifically, Gandhi gained renown for leading a campaign to resist the government-mandated registration of Asians that lasted from 1906 to 1914.

It was in the midst of this nonviolent resistance movement that the International Printing Press (IPP) was born at the behest of Gandhi, and with Viyavarik Madanjit as its proprietor. The press was founded to serve and unite the expatriate Indian community in South Africa. In Mandanjit's words: "We have all believed a printing press to be a necessity among us. No civilized community can do without it." Hofmeyr emphasizes that a driving force behind the publishing efforts of the IPP was Gandhi's radical framing of a hierarchy that put Truth (satyagraha) first, then India, and finally Empire. This hierarchy served as a means to form the identity of ex-pat Indians: first into the countercultural way of satyagraha and then into the national identity of India. Working within this Gandhian philosophy, the printing press in its earliest years printed pamphlets and sustained itself by contracting to print odd jobs. In 1903, the press launched a newspaper, Indian Opinion, which was published in several of the primary languages of the Indian sub-continent, and served as a catalyst in organizing and mobilizing the Indian community in South Africa.

Hofmeyr argues that the IPP, and particularly the Indian Opinion and its pamphlet publications, provided an important tool with which Gandhi could experiment with the identity formation of a particular community. She notes that the work of the IPP unfolded within the multi-layered "entanglements" of empire in South Africa at the dawn of the 20th century:

[The IPP] drew its personnel from southern Africa, the Indian Ocean world, and England, and it sought to address an audience spread across Africa, India, and Britain …. If the medley of diasporic communities resulted in varied printing personnel, then this disparateness provided the basis for trying out new forms of community.

These "new forms of community"—and the distinctive role of reading in their formation—captured my imagination as I read Hofmeyr's work.

In its heyday (1903-1914), the IPP published roughly 30 pamphlets, the content of which was mostly drawn from the Indian Opinion. These pamphlets were central to Gandhi's vision and to the work of the press. Hofmeyr observes that "the paper was envisaged as serving the pamphlets rather than vice versa." It is not surprising, then, that these pamphlets "have become one of the paper's most enduring legacies." Except for the most famous of these pamphlets, Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, they consisted not of original writings but rather of translations, reviews, abridgements, and retellings. The pamphlets covered diverse subjects, all connected in some way to the central themes of satyagraha: resistance, courage, and nonviolence. Gandhi also attempted to cater to the Muslim readers who comprised a large percentage of his audience, by publishing pamphlets that were relevant to their faith. While they were issued in the pamphlet format, Gandhi envisioned that these works could be bound together into books, giving them a permanence rarely afforded to pamphlets.

Although the Indian Opinion, the primary periodical published by the IPP, appeared on the surface of things to be a newspaper, Hofmeyr emphasizes that it "was hardly a newspaper at all" in the conventional sense. Thus, she prefers to describe it as a journal or periodical—which is published, distributed, and consumed at a slower pace than a newspaper, and furthermore has a substantially longer period of relevance. Hofmeyr describes the content of Indian Opinion:

Like most of its contemporaries in colonial settings, the journal was largely generated through cuttings and summaries gleaned from exchange papers from far and wide. Transnational summary hence constituted much of the paper's substance …. Gandhi's particular contribution was to extend these methods into his ethical writings for the paper. Through summary and abridgement of texts from across the world, he instituted new kinds of ethical "exchanges," helping readers see themselves as part of a vast reading commonwealth while making the ethical extracts and the "news" clippings among which they were placed equivalent to each other.

The format and arrangement of pieces, both news reprints and ethical extracts curated by Gandhi, served to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, as Hofmeyr notes:

To the casual observer, Indian Opinion appears to be doing the work of any ordinary periodical, namely promoting hasty and discontinuous reading. Yet, Indian Opinion strove to turn such a format against itself by organizing reading around pausing and perseverance. Instead of seeing the gaps between stories as something to be hastened over, these become moments for reflection, and for thinking about how to link the bits one has read.

This Gandhian idea of slow reading, a key theme throughout the book, is rooted in the complementary insights "that serious reading can only be done at the pace of the human body and that each reader must read on his or her behalf."

Although Gandhi understood well that the result of industrialization was an increase in the pace of culture—which he refer to as the macadamization of the mind—he sought the formation of a community that was defined by its patient attentiveness and that extended outward from the ashram in which the IPP was situated. The selection and arrangement of extracts in the Indian Opinion, as well as the pamphlets that Gandhi published, served to create a rough surface—in contrast to the smooth macadam of industrialization—that would help readers slow down and contemplate what they were reading. The content that Gandhi offered in his publications was meaty and aimed at promoting the cause of satyagraha. News stories and excerpts from authors such as Ruskin, Tolstoy, and Thoreau, whose work Gandhi saw as essential to the ethics of satyagraha, served to form a slow, attentive community that could resist the empire's industrial pressure for speed.

In an age when individualism and consumerism reign supreme as the imperial powers that shape Western society, churches would do well to reflect on the story that Isabel Hofmeyr tells in Gandhi's Printing Press. We are in dire need today of practices that shape our identity as a people, and that teach us to slow down and be attentive to the world around us and the power that it exerts upon our desires. As Gandhi's experiences in South Africa indicate, reading can be an important practice of this sort, but it must be done with intentionality about what we read and how we read it. Committing to practices of reading and conversation (about reading) in our church communities can help to provide the structure we need to begin the challenging process of slowing down. Perhaps our communities will have leaders like Gandhi who can help guide us in these kind of practices, and recommend resources that will help us to read (and live) more slowly and attentively. If we are to bear witness to a different way, then we must seek to apprentice ourselves to practices that—when sustained over many years—will inevitably slow us down.

C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author (with John Pattison) of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (forthcoming from IVP/Praxis).

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