Last night I went to see the American writer Annie Proulx speak about her new memoir Bird Cloud.
The talk was excellent; the readings were beautiful and Annie Proulx in person was as curt and sharp as her flinty, bright sentences might suggest.
And yet the evening was a little bit terrifying. What terrified me was the homogenity of the audience. So many of the same type. Large, billowy women in blouses. Thatchy hair. Sensible shoes. Occasionally accessorised with a funky pair of glasses or chunky beads.
That sounds perhaps a bit noxious, and I don’t mean to be judgmental. Because the fashion isn’t really the point; more the uniformity of it. Except for one weedy Chinese man in a fake Tommy Hilfiger shirt a few seats in front of me, and me, and my friend, the torsos were uniformly female + Anglo + mature. The sameness was staggering. It was like being at a weird kind of nature reserve or special group home.
I wondered, is this what readers look like, these days?
Is this what reading looks like?
It terrified me, because I realise I don’t really read novels these days, and so perhaps I didn’t really belong at the talk anyway. I read status updates. I read essays and articles I download from longform.org or nytimes.com. I read Mia Freeman’s blog and the lifestyle sections of Fairfax digital. Updates tossed into my inbox by Contagious or good.is. Tweets. Emails. Things that come in a long scrolly ribbon on my iPhone.
And when I open a book, I read in fragments. I read before I go to sleep, one thumb wedged under the slice of pages I want to get through; I read a few paragraphs in parks; I read chunks of text, these days, on traffic-bogged trams. None of that obsessive reading I remember from childhood; none of that compulsive book-in-one-hand-toothbrush-in-the-other full-body-immersion in another world. Everything is snippeted and snatched and stolen. There are simply too many other things to do.
I think last night made me realise that I miss the groundedness of a world without hypertext. A linear world, one not constantly asking me to click on it and go somewhere else.
The concept of nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (“homecoming”) + algos (“pain, grief, distress”). Literally, the ache of home. In an odd way, I think that what shook me last night was a kind of homesickness for reading. A nostalgia for the experience of reading; wholly, bodily, without regard to time or place.
Proulx spoke about that kind of physical, heavy, immersive experience of books, that experience of books as a force of weather or nature, and it sounds like Bird Cloud preoccupies itself in a number of ways with the demands and possibilities of reading. I haven’t cracked it open yet, but as the jacket tells,
[Proulx] fell in love with the land, and she knew what she wanted to build on it – a house in harmony with her work, her appetites and her character, with shelves for thousands of books and long work tables on which to heap manuscripts, research materials and maps…
I love it when things converge like this – ideas, places, books, moods. I’m going to go read my copy of Bird Cloud now.
And I’m hoping that it’ll tell me what I’m already beginning to suspect – that there is a place for reading, even today – and even and especially if you’re undeniably Gen Y, with an iPhone in your bag and not-very-sensible shoes on your feet.