In the year 2000, Colombian politician and academic Oscar Tulio Lizcano was kidnapped by the guerilla organisation known as the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and spent almost 3000 days in captivity in the jungle. Eventually, with the aid of one of his captors, he managed to escape, and emerged, exhausted, muddy, and emaciated back into freedom.
How did he stay sane? His captors would not speak to him, so to keep his mind alive, he would give imaginary lectures on history and philosophy, placing sticks in the ground to represent some of his former students. But most of all, he read. Perhaps to keep him in reasonable shape for purposes of exchange, the guerillas had encouraged sympathisers to supply books, any books, for Oscar to read. Just before he was freed, they were carting over 60 books through the jungle on his behalf. (Colombian guerrillas must be a unique breed).
What did he read? He read, and re-read the Iliad. And he read poetry, lots of it. Being a Spanish-speaker there was lots of choice – Pablo Neruda, the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti, Spain’s Antonio Machado. And these are real poets, poets who continue to speak from the heart, not, as so many of our own have seemingly learned to do, from a posture of perpetual linguistic irony. Committing them to memory, as Oscar did, would have been a pleasure rather than a penance.
And so I marvelled at Oscar Lizcano’s courage and resilience. If I were ever unfortunate enough to be kidnapped, I would like to think that I, too, would have a chance of surviving if I had access to books.
But which ones? Clearly, one would want works that were enjoyable but still weighty. I would like to re-read Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and Patrick White’s Voss, and for poetry Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the magical early poems of Judith Wright. And there would have to be Proust, all of it. When you are reading to stay alive, you don’t muck around.
When did I begin to read? I can’t remember an exact moment, perhaps it was more of an immersion, a gradual merging with the world of words. My mother (possibly incorrectly) thought that ease in learning to read was a sign of intelligence. Whatever the case, once you start to get the hang of it, it’s a capacity that is yours for life, possibly the greatest gift each generation gives to the next.
Much of what I read as a kid was British, and by today’s standards, extremely politically incorrect. From very early on, I recall much Enid Blyton and in primary school, I was entranced by the adventures of air-ace, Captain Bigglesworth (the creation of W E Johns). My more feminine sisters read L M Montgomery, and we all loved Louisa Alcott’s Little Women. But there were plenty of Australian authors too. There was Tasmanian writer Nan Chauncy, one of the first children’s writers to capture the mystery of the Australian bush in her prose, and for the younger ones, May Gibbs’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, both enduring classics.
I know that adults continue to give their kids (and grandkids) these books. There are books for young adults, too, many of them best-sellers. Like war books, gardening books, cookbooks and crime novels, children’s books are one of the few publishing categories that sells. Parents want their kids to read. And many dip into the books themselves. It seems to me that when adults write children’s literature, they produce a certain kind of literature for themselves.
As Australian readers and as English-speakers, we are lucky because we have easy access to most of the best of the world’s writing, either in the original, or in translation. But our blessing is also something of a curse, in that our homegrown authors must compete for our attention against some of the literary world’s heaviest hitters, from the UK and the US. Unlike the Swedes or the Finns, who are habitues of English, but have their own language too, there is nowhere uniquely our own for us to retreat to.
These days, I must confess to being a compulsive reader. When visiting tourist sights, I annoy those who simply want to see stuff, by insisting on reading every last word on the ‘signage’. I read the uplifting tasting notes on the back-labels of wine bottles. I read the labels on sauce bottles and the alarming chemistry-lessons on the packaging of processed foods.
It is hard not to read. But how much do I absorb? I have to confess, not a lot. In fact, after years of picking my way through academic articles (searching, despairingly for the point), I found I had lost the knack of reading for pleasure. The reading of novels having passed me by, I decided to get back into them. What to read? I started with Alex Miller, but found his much-praised Autumn Laing, whose eponymous heroine channels Sunday Reed, to be very hard going indeed. What next? I turned to Cloudstreet. Now Cloudstreet has devoted followers, it has even been turned into an opera. It has characters called Lamb and Pickles. I could not find a way to care about these people, who were clearly meant to be lovable, and interesting. Could there be something the matter with me, I wondered?
I found when I consulted the Internet that about one in five of those who recorded a review simply could not get into Cloudstreet. I started to wonder whether there might not be a problem with the book itself. I had loved Ruth Park’s Poor Man’s Orange, but as I now realised, that was an empathetic middle class writer’s take on a working class world. Tim Winton makes his characters provide their own perspective in Cloudstreet, so the effect is a bit like Muriel’s Wedding – charming, funny and often pointed, but somehow hard to take seriously.
The problem is, there is not much lit crit that is of any use to the average reader. Newspapers offer reviews, but these are usually written to praise rather than critique. With readers so hard to find, this is perhaps understandable. The literary magazines struggle to stay afloat and are so politically correct there is not much fun to be had in reading them. There are essays on individual authors, but little to draw it all together. Having long since surrendered to post-modernism, the academy has few incentives to align writing about literature with the interests of readers.
What is happening to reading, now, in our digital world? There are more books published than ever, although the plethora of titles and the shortness of their shelf-life suggests more the desperation of publishers to stay afloat, rather than the intrinsic health of the format. How we read is clearly changing. Books, particularly novels, are easy to purchase and download from online retailers. You can’t beat an e-reader when travelling, provided you remember to charge it.
There are book clubs all over the place, sustained by middle class women like me, with kids off, and time on, their hands. If not everyone quite gets to do the reading, it’s still a great way to talk with like-minded people. Occasionally a bloke shows up, but men generally, at least the men of my era, are not comfortable in this sort of situation. I wonder where they have all got to? Perhaps they are reading Deuteronomy or Bagehot at home. Maybe they are in their local men’s sheds, which seem to play the same role as Masonic lodges used to. No one, apart from those actually involved, seems to know quite what goes on inside.
What about the kids? Alas, their concentration spans seem to be too fragmented to stick with anything for very long, let alone persevere with a book from beginning to end. On the other hand, the habit of texting replaces speaking with reading. And the blogosphere is rampant with ramblings. So reading, of a kind, is alive and well.
But the presence of words does not mean they are being attended to. It is the visual that reigns in our culture. Many people do not even know they have been to a place unless they have taken a selfie in front of it. Even when we listen, all we hear is a cacophony of voices. Only when we concentrate, do we find the silence within that reminds us of the preciousness of our heritage of language. In the beginning was the word, not the website.
This essay first appeared in Quadrant, November 2016