By Tamara Hunter
“Is reading overrated?”
The question posed by the 2012 Perth Writers Festival session seemed a ridiculous one to ask in a forum jammed with readers, writers, publishers and general devotees of the written word. Talk about preaching to the converted.
But for a significant number of people, reading is by no means a given. An astonishing 46 per cent of Australians are unable to read with fluency. According to the website for the National Year of Reading, almost half of all Australians are unable to read newspapers, follow recipes or timetables or understand the instructions on a medicine bottle.
Just ponder that for a minute. Try to imagine a life without reading. When the authors on yesterday’s festival panel were asked to do this, they appeared stricken.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like if I hadn’t read. I would probably be a very, very unhappy and hollow man,” answered Andrew Relph, the Perth psychologist, psychotherapist and author whose first book explores the idea of reading as a gift and saviour.
In Not Drowning, Reading Relph – who had a reading disability as a child and laboriously taught himself to read later in life – discusses how our relationships with authors and characters can be instrumental to our emotional development and survival.
Relph reads few books because the process is so slow for him – he typically takes about six months on each one – so he chooses his material carefully. The books he has read are deeply significant to him and he credits them with helping him to recover from an emotionally difficult childhood. As a result, he firmly believes books have the power to remediate psychological problems.
“I believe it because it has happened to me and because I have watched it happen to other people.”
Books are manna, too, to beloved Australian actor, author and fellow panellist William McInnes, a man so popular he packed venues to bursting at each of his festival appearances.
McInnes – a self-proclaimed boofhead whose hilariously erratic ramblings and compulsive impersonations of politicians and other public figures at an earlier session prompted interviewer Geoff Hutchinson to screw up and throw over his shoulder the questions he’d prepared – is the patron of the National Year of Reading. In between hilariously erratic ramblings, an hysterical reading from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and speaking movingly of his late wife, Sarah Watt, McInnes took the chance to talk up the three key goals of the NYOR initiative.
- For all Australians to understand the benefits of reading as a life skill and a catalyst for well-being
- To promote a reading culture in every home and
- To establish an aspirational goal for families, of parents and caregivers sharing books with their children every day.
McInnes told festival-goers that for him, reading was about education, knowledge and communication. It lent people opportunity, confidence and connection, no matter how alone they thought they were or whatever dark place they may find themselves in. On a personal level, reading kept him on an even keel.
“Reading lets me know about what has been, about what is going on in the world. It gives me a fair idea of where we might be headed.”
He said it didn’t matter what people read – as long as they did it. Hence the excerpt from Goldfinger, a book he thought brilliant at 13 but later realised was hilarious precisely because it was ‘absolute bullshit’.
“It is rubbish, but when you’re in the right mood for it, you don’t want to be judgmental. You mustn’t be a snob about it – reading takes all shapes and forms these days and as long as people read I think that’s a terrific thing.”
HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn agreed, saying there was no right or wrong way to read, whatever the format – whether a book in paper or digital form, a novel or the comic/sequential art narrative form exemplified by fellow panellist, illustrator and children’s author Nicki Greenberg.
“What I think is exciting about how people read and how people connect is it’s individual,” said Martyn. “You should choose a type of reading that is appropriate for you. If you feel like something quick and easy and casual, just enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty. Sometimes people go to bookshops and feel intimidated. I encourage people to read and enjoy it any way they can.”
Relph added that readers should never feel obliged to finish every book they started. He said people connected with particular books because of similarities between the stories and their lives.
“I think that is why at different times of your life different types of books are more appealing to you. Sometimes if you reread a book a long time later it has maybe less power or more power. You have to be in the moment to engage with the book. If you are not enjoying a book put it aside. Maybe you want to enjoy it at another time. Maybe it isn’t for you. You should never continue reading a book just because you started it. If you don’t like it, put it back.”
Andrew Relph is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Perth who has battled dyslexia since childhood and who didn’t read a book until the age of 17. Not Drowning, Reading, is his first published book.
William McInnes is one of Australia’s most popular stars of stage and screen and the author of several books including A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby and Worse Things Happen At Sea, the affectionate recounting of family life he penned with his late wife, the film-maker Sarah Watt, before her death from cancer in November last year.
Shona Martyn is the Publishing Director at HarperCollins (Australia and New Zealand). She is a former editor of HQ magazine and of Good Weekend magazine.
Nicki Greenberg is a writer/illustrator with a special interest in sequential art narrative – aka comics. Her first books, The Digits series, were published when she was fifteen years old and sold more than 380,000 copies. Her latest books are comic art interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Hamlet.
Other reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >
Great article, Ms. Hunter! I love what Relph says about reading be so important to our emotional development. It is vital to helping learn how to reason, deal with moral questions, and seei the consequences of actions. And that we don’t have to finish every book we start … there, I feel much better now about some of my “orphans”…
Uh, obviously it is also vital to helping us SPELL. 🙂 Sorry about the typos above. Haven’t had my coffee yet on this side of the Pacific. 🙂
Thanks for the comment Shelley. Yes, I feel less guilty about some of those that I have tried and had to put down for a while (or for good). Maybe the ‘moment’ will arrive later 🙂
When I was very little, reading was the “magic” my mother and sisters knew. I was read to, often, but it was the “magic” I wanted for myself and it was the driving force to read that became the gift I gave to myself. There are so many books, that I have never worried about the ones I didn’t like or finish; I knew that someone had written a book that I would love, again and again. Thank you, Ms. Hunter, for a thoughtful piece that affirms my feelings for the written word.
Thank you Susan. I remember the session I wrote about last year on author’s favourite childhood books. It was so much fun and really shows how the foundation for a love of books is really built in childhood. I love how you describe it as a gift, because as the literacy figures show, it really is one!