The Reading Hour

Whilst catching up on some podcasts recently I discovered that I had missed the inaugural annual reading hour. This event, promoted by the Australian Library and Information Association, called for Australians to spend one hour reading. One of the activities was to encourage parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day over a week. There was also encouragement for anyone to make a date with a book. It  made me reflect on my reading habits and what reading means to me.

It is hard to think back to a time when I didn’t read, when the words were merely scribbles on a page, yet to be deciphered. I remember some early reading books such as Dick and Jane (anything that had my name in it assumed greater importance) and books of fairy tales. There were illustrated versions of the childhood classics, including Black Beauty and a book of Aboriginal legends. I delighted in odd compendiums of facts, like The Big Book of How and Why or something similar.

A lesson learnt early on was the incredible power of books to transport me to another time or place, to parts of the world both familiar and strange, to characters that seemed as real and complex as any that were in my daily life. The pleasure of being so caught up in a story that it slips into your mind whilst you’re doing other things, as you ponder on what might happen to this character, or how this seemingly impossible situation will resolve itself – these are some of the many joys that reading provides.

In the podcast, a few writers were interviewed to see what reading meant to them. For Chris Womersley reading takes place anywhere and it is difficult to imagine life without it. Sometimes life is understood more through literature than real life, and books play an important part in his internal narrative about what was going on in his life at a particular time. Kevin Kwan spoke of the pleasure that reading gives him – more pleasure than just about anything else, opening up a world of possibilities. For Kamila Shamsie, happiness is being in a hammock, reading. Reading means you never have to be alone, or that your life is limited to your own experiences. According to Shamsie, it enables you to develop empathy and imagination.

It is often claimed by many writers that to write, one must read. Reading widely is encouraged, not just in the genre that you write in or your particular field of expertise. Reading widely offers insights and approaches that can complement various styles, and I’ve heard interviews where some authors deliberately read non-fiction whilst writing fiction, for example.

I like to read a couple of books at any given time, and over the years this has evolved into a mixture of books, ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve just finished reading The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris as an ebook from the library after listening to The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman for my book group. Next on the book group list is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, an author I haven’t read in decades since I toted War and Peace around at the end of my teens. Recently I finished reading The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain, which was beautiful and devastating. I’m also reading Where Song Began by Tim Low. A friend has given me a couple of books on meditation and I’m also keen to read a couple of Australian crime thrillers that have been in my reading pile after reading some enthusiastic reviews lately.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo: detail from my favourite reading chair]

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Neighbourly Thoughts

Recently I came across a Chinese proverb in a magazine: Love your neighbours, but don’t pull down the fence. It made me think about neighbours in general and the act of being a neighbour.

Growing up in a Sydney suburb, we knew our neighbours in part because there were other children in our street. Neighbours on one side kept an eye out for us and there was a doorway in the fence to allow easy movement back and forth. These neighbours were older than our parents, and there were grandchildren of a similar age who visited regularly. There was a golden Labrador called Cleo who never seemed to mind being roped into various games and activities. Other delights included a steering wheel attached to a fence, a mulberry tree in a corner and for some reason that I can’t recall, a poker machine in the kitchen. It was an old-style machine that was played with shillings or ten-cent pieces, and what a thrill it was to pull the handle and ‘win’ the occasional jackpot.

I’ve lived in villas, in student accommodation and on a property with acreage as well as in country towns and now in the mountains, and I’ve had a mix of neighbours along the way. The farming neighbour was usually spotted at a distance, and there were sensory delights at cropping time, especially with a paddock of coriander close to the property boundary. Living with an abundance of space made it a bit challenging to get used to people living close by when I moved into town but I’ve been lucky to have had good neighbours.

Neighbours can be a friendly presence, someone to keep an eye on your place if you are away for a while, to collect mail and newspapers and give you peace of mind. A wave and a smile can be enough to make you feel at ease, and it feeds into a sense of being part of wider community. Neighbours share news and plant cuttings, turn up with extra servings of food and even Christmas gifts for my dog. They know what is going on in the neighbourhood, and a quick catch up can be most enjoyable. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other without infringing on each other’s space.

My neighbours are one of the reasons why I love mountain life. From my arrival here I was made to feel welcome, and there are many small gestures of kindness shared between us without any sense of expectation or reciprocation required. During weather events – such as heavy snowfall or the bushfires in 2013 – we keep an eye out for each other and share news and updates. It is impossible to put a value on the peace of mind that comes with having good neighbours.

There was another quote on the page of proverbs that I read: A stranger nearby is better than a far-away relative. There is truth in this Korean saying.

What are your neighbourly experiences?

Proverbs spotted in Issue 3 of Breathe Magazine Australia.

[Photo: snowfall in July 2015]

Not Telling

One of my favourite songs is ‘They Thought I Was Asleep‘ by Paul Kelly. There are three kids in the backseat of a car, one grizzling until the eldest child tells him ‘he’d better quit it or die’. They are travelling home, worn out after a day in the country playing with their cousins. One child wakes in the dark, the car moving through the night, and senses something big was happening. Something he didn’t understand and wasn’t meant to know about.

He hears his parents talking, his Dad says something and his Mum begins to cry. ‘No more words then, just soft sobs and my head began to throb, I just lay there playing dog breathing slow and deep, they thought I was asleep.’

I love what this song evokes, the light touches of childhood, the perplexity around his mother’s tears, his father’s too, not knowing why, feigning sleep.

As he sings I’m in the backseat of the car, wedged into the warmth of my siblings, vinyl bench seat beneath my legs, crocheted rug pulled across the three of us, staring out into the black night. Eyes turned up to the night sky, seeking out the moon which was guiding us home, picking out the shapes of trees with branches silvered in moonlight. Sensing something was amiss but not knowing what. Snippets of my memory, real and imagined, overlaid onto the lyrics of a song.

This is what we do, essentially, with songs, stories, artworks and poetry that have a particular resonance, or evoke a personal reaction. There might be familiarity too, or a synchronicity of time or place that embeds a response. It can be difficult to separate the personal at times, to peel back the layers of why a song, in this instance, pulls me up whenever I hear it.

In Kelly’s excellent mongrel memoir How To Make Gravy, a wide-ranging read mixing personal and family history with insights into his creative process and influences, there is a section about this song. One of his band members asked him a couple of times about the family in the song: did the parents break up, was one of them seriously ill, why was the mother crying? Kelly’s response: he didn’t know. He could recall travelling home as a child, pretending to sleep so that he would be carried inside, ‘floating across the threshold’, being gently placed into bed. The rest he made up.

This is what the act of creating is about, not telling. Being more of a conduit than providing an explanation for everything.

Are there any songs that make you pause for thought or reflection?

[Photo: dining room table at Wyalong Museum]