on missing reading

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.

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3 thoughts on “on missing reading

  1. My sister and I call those kinds of women the ‘Radio National demographic’. (Mainly because our mother works for Radio National and EVERYONE there looks like that.)

    This reminds me, in an indirect sort of way, of a post by young-adult author Justine Larbalestier telling everyone to basically calm down about the ‘reading crisis among boys’. Boys were reading, she said, they just necessarily weren’t reading novels. Reading is reading, even if the words and the context are different.

    (Also, great blog, by the way. I stumbled upon it randomly while procrastinating on Facebook, but I can see I’m going to have to follow it now!)

  2. Hah, I know EXACTLY what you mean Ronni!! Radio National SOUNDS like it looks like that… in a good way. I love Radio National.

    As an update, and a demonstration of the point you make, though, I still haven’t cracked open Bird Cloud, even three weeks later. I’ve read reams and reams of articles and essays and tweets and so on in the meantime, scrolled through plenty of text on my iPhone, but a whole, integral book? Nup.

    I’m assuming it’s different in Cambridge though. (Surely! It would be. Wouldn’t it?)

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