Notes for Panel Discussion on Reading at Abbotsford Convent February 13, 2010
Every book I read, and just about every book I have ever read, is marked on the margins with either pencil dots or pencil crosses. The blank pages at the back are then annotated according to page numbers, corresponding to the pencil marks. Sometimes I paste an envelope onto the inside back cover and insert into it white index cards onto which I have kept my annotations. So much for my little reading habits.
I think that reading is a kind of weird magic, actually. In his autobiography Robert Hughes writes of ‘the transformative value of word-magic’. He is discussing the poems he read in adolescence. But the phrase can be applied to the very art and act of reading which is a skill that is more or less taken for granted, but I think it’s truly fantastic. There’s a lovely book by John Sutherland called Magic Moments – it’s a memoir located in the books – and also films – he has loved. It caught my attention because of the word ‘magic’ in the title. He doesn’t really talk about what I am calling the magic of the art of reading, but he looks at the role of treasured narratives in the shaping of his life. To get the magic moment from reading you have to master the magical art of reading.
Everyone here has done that – and you are here to listen to what writers might say about reading. Stephanie has been reading Rilke, and writing about Rilke; Sue has been deep in the war diaries of Weary Dunlop, and has written his life. The inspiration for my new book began with a story I read years and years ago when I was in my final year of high school. It was a story by Prosper Merimee about a wedding in the French Pyrenees. A strange silvery black statue of Venus had been dug up, and was standing near the family home. The bridegroom was playing a game of pelota before the wedding, and put the wedding ring – supposedly for safe-keeping on the ring finger of the statue. When he came to retrieve the ring, the statue’s hand was clenched, and the ring was stuck. So he had to use a trashy little ring he had bought to give to a lady of the night. Well the party after the wedding ceremony was long and drunken, and the bride retired early. She lay in the dark waiting for the bridegroom. She was under the impression that he had fallen heavily into bed beside her, and had fallen into a drunken slumber. However – before long another person entered the bedroom. This really was the bridegroom, and he fell drunkenly into the bed beside the other figure. This figure turned out to be the statue of Venus who considered herself to be married to the bridegroom. She proceeded to squeeze him to death before lumbering out of the room back to her place beside the pelota court.
As a teenager I became fascinated by the dark statues of ancient goddesses that sometimes emerge from the earth in Europe. I discovered that many of these are venerated as being figures of the Virgin Mary – known as the Black Madonna. These figures became objects of great fascination to me.
The Black Madonna is a key figure in my new book – Child of the Twilight. It has been a long time, and a long process, but I have told you the story of my inspiration because it originated in my reading.
The word ‘reading’ implies a ‘reader’ and these days a ‘reader’ might be less of a person and more of a kindle or an ipod. And in the publishing contracts of today there is a newish term which is a kind of definition of a reader – this term is ‘end-user’. When you sign up with your publisher for them to produce your work as an e-book, the contract is concerned with your rights, the rights of the publisher and those of the end-user. The end-user sounds to me like someone who picks up cigarette butts in the gutter. Or someone who gathers scraps of soap and fashions them into a useful little block.
By the way I enjoy reading books on an ipod. And I have recently explored the world of the VOOK. That’s with a V. You can buy, for example, the children’s picture book The Velveteen Rabbit as a Vook – and experience a whole new kind of reading. You read the text on a screen, move in and out of it to images and videos, and discuss it as you go with other readers on Twitter. There are also whole novels you can get as Vooks. It is a different reading experience, but part of it still depends on being able to decode the marks on paper or screen. To some extent.
So leaving aside for now the literary gadgetry, I have some anecdotes to relate in response to the topic ‘reading’.
The first concerns the three elements of magic involving the writing of fiction – there’s the writer and there’s the writing and there’s the reader. The writing, or the book, is the link between the two, and without the reader the circle is incomplete. The writer and the reader come together in the book. And usually the text is the only meeting place for them. However at writers’ festivals the writer and the reader can come face to face. And they can sometimes discover that the book the writer wrote is not the same thing as the book the reader read. This is I think an important part of the whole process. It can be quite shocking and confronting to talk with one’s readers and to discover the things people have discovered. Or to listen to one’s reviewers and to learn of the things they have NOT discovered. Words and ideas are so rich and slippery. The connection between writer and reader is not as simple as it looks. Readers often even misremember even the title of the book – once I wrote a book called Not Now Jack I’m Writing a Novel – and I was introduced at a festival as the author of Not Now Harry I’m Writing a Book. Possibly an improvement.
Recently I was reminded of the many ways books and readers come together.
I had been invited to speak to a group of readers in a very tiny rural Victorian town. To get to the town I drove through forest and farmland, up hill and down dale, with almost no traffic and with scary rotten bridges across dry creek beds. Finally I arrived at a community hall – I can’t resist naming the hall because I am beguiled by the name – the Agnes Mudford Hall.
I was to have afternoon tea and a chat with my readers. But not in the hall itself, as I had imagined. No, we were to assemble in a lovely little white marquee that had been put up on the grass beside the hall rather like a wedding tent. And under the marquee was a mobile tea and coffee kiosk with a jovial man dispensing coffee and biscuits. Next to the marquee was a huge bus full of books – the local bookmobile, also manned by a cheerful attendant who said he didn’t really read books – that you can easily teach a bus driver to be a librarian, but you can’t so easily get a librarian to drive a bus. This is probably not true – but I didn’t argue.
I was in a lovely oasis of reading – in the middle of central Victoria, the heart of the old goldfields country.
Most of the readers had come to my books by orthodox means – but there was one woman who told a nice little story which I will recount.
She had never read anything of mine. Had never heard of me. She was listening to the radio and heard the advertisement for the literary afternoon tea at the Agnes Mudford centre. She did not really intend to go to the afternoon tea, but she had registered my name. Later that day she opened a bag of books left for her by a friend. One of the books was a collection of short fiction in which she found one of my stories. She read the story, remembered the afternoon tea, and decided to go. The magic circle between the writer and the reader had been closed by the story. This anecdote goes to show not only that it pays to advertise on the radio, but also that books get around, and writers simply never know where they will turn up. You never know who is reading, and that is a wonderful thing about writing.
The life and journey of the words a writer writes are strange and beautiful. I realize I could move off here into a discussion of the internet and its role in reading, of the kindle and e-book and the vook and so on and on, but I prefer to confine myself for the time being to the notion of the conventional book and conventional publishing of books. I enjoy reading on the kindle and on the computer screen, by the way. I am not arguing against such things.
The second anecdote concerns the child who is learning to read.
My small grandson knows a little bit about reading, although he recognises mostly single words, not many whole sequences. He knows there is a code he has to crack, a magic art he needs to master. When I see the word ‘reading’ these days I think of him, and the way every day delivers a little bit of progress in his mastery of the art. He has an expectation about narrative. He understands character, plot and suspense, and he knows that there are really only two endings – happy resolution or total destruction. He told me a story recently about two of his toys – they happened to be a lion and a rabbit – but the species don’t signify. He said they meet and kiss and then they fall down dead. He follows narrative in a range of media from film to the internet and so forth. He and I were recently alone in an old church. We had a good look at everything and lit a lot of candles. And he was interested in the outlandish size of the bible that was open on the lectern. He said:
‘This is a very long story.’
So he has absorbed the idea that between the covers of a book the pages of writing contain a narrative, and that narrative is magic and that the words are the key.
We went to see Fantastic Mr Fox together. It turns out that much of the film depends on the audience reading words on the screen. ‘What does that say?’ the child would ask me. It became impossible to keep going, since the narrative was incomprehensible without the words, and by the time I had whispered them to him the action had moved on. After half an hour or so he said: ‘I just don’t get it.’ It seemed a bit cruel to persist. So we left.
He will learn to read. But some people don’t. I am reminded of something that happened two years ago.
Now the third anecdote in the series.
I had just moved from the city to the country and my new bed was being delivered from the city. The man who drove the delivery truck very kindly moved the old bed into the guest bedroom, and then he assembled the new one in my bedroom. The house was full of books. As he was putting the new bed together the man commented on the books and said he supposed I must read a lot. Then he said in a sad, sincere and wistful way: ‘I wish I could read.’
He said he had missed out on reading in school, and had made several very serious attempts as an adult to learn to read. He had been assessed and been included in special programs and classes. These attempts had all somehow failed and he still could not read. I then made an effort to discover avenues he had not explored. All this came to nought. What he needed I suppose was daily individual instruction. I felt really sad and powerless. An irony was that perhaps I could have helped him personally, but we had only met because I had moved away from the city and I could no longer hope to be in contact with him on a regular basis.
The final story is a key one in my own life as a writer and reader. Once a long time ago when I was suffering from a broken romance I lost the ability to read. Reading had always been a fundamental part of my life, so this loss of ability was devastating. I could still recognize words, but I was unable to hold sequences in my head long enough for them to make any sense. I could still write a shopping list, could still read a telephone book. But writing or reading a story was out of the question.
In the middle of this nightmare I happened to stay with an aunt for a few days. I slept in a room which was lined with books. The books nearest to the bed were the works of Agatha Christie. I had never read any. I opened one and focused my frustrated gaze on the first sentence. I am sorry I can’t remember what it said. But whatever it was – I discovered that the words yielded up the meaning just as they used to do, and before I knew what had happened I was reading again. Perhaps the mechanism was the one that people describe when they say that children get turned on to reading by Harry Potter. Is it the simplicity of the prose in conjunction with the writer’s utter commitment to the plot and the characters? Well there are of course many elements to the magic at work here, and there are many opinions and even grand theories you can consider along the way. But when I think of reading I always come back to the notion that there is a magic at work. A kind of magic that had deserted me for a time. Reading is concerned with spells cooked up by writers, involving readers, and not forgetting all the end-users.