The Lost Art of Reading
This entry takes its title from Rodney Hall’s keynote address at the 2010 Byron Bay Writer’s Festival. I had hoped to begin with a link to the lecture which I believe the ABC filmed and will eventually upload onto youtube. While googling, I found this interview, which is a really interesting introduction to the man.
I met Rodney about ten years ago, at the Victorian College of the Arts. He was running a writing workshop for film students, and in the course of things, he expressed an interest in my work. I have been immensely fortunate to have Rodney mentor me through the process of writing three novels. He taught me how to actually work, as well as write, and this is the most valuable gift to an artist.
The other thing Rodney did was really get me reading. I had not really ventured into the classics; not outside of the Twentieth Century, I should say. Names like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Shakespeare were monolithic. I was terrified of them, and I thought that reading them would only force on me the certainly that had hitherto been a suspicion; I was actually stupid. Rodney told me about a few books he felt I would like; one of them was Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The first few paragraphs can be found here, to give you the idea;
It took me a few runs to make any sense of it, and then I flipped to the back of the book. The site that contains the novel puts it at about 918 pages. I think my paperback was about the same. It was so big that if you taped it up, you could use it as an aerobic step.
FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK, I thought.
I was extremely grateful for the interest Rodney had showed in me; I had been writing diligently for some years, and saw my relationship with him as my ‘big break’. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I stuck at Tom Jones. I had never read anything so difficult, so convoluted and complex; not just in terms of its story, but its language.
By the time I’d emerged from film school, I had watched one hell of a lot of films. Prior to VCA, I had done a degree in cinema and was well and truly saturated. My attitude by that time had become one of ‘same shit, different bucket’; even the good ones were derivative of things I had seen before. Tom Jones was the first time in years, probably a decade, that I had read a story that genuinely blew my hair back. After that, I really sharpened my teeth and got stuck in. I didn’t have a car that year and was living for a time in a near-abandoned house. Public transport gave me the opportunity to really knuckle down. And in the same way I had developed my bench press, deadlift and squat, I took those books apart; I set a number of pages for the day and would not sleep until they had been engorged.
Some of these books were, at turns, boring. They all had their moments. They really opened my mind to what a great story was, and reinforced my faith in probably the single word written over the lintel of my life; ‘discipline’. The discipline of sitting down and reading these books every day was just like the discipline of writing or training. The complete works of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are three of the most astonishing things I have ever undertaken. I genuinely think reading those books will make you a better person. When you see people through the eyes of those writers, they gift you with what is almost an omniscient insight into people and the way they behave. Why they do the things they do. Reading these books makes you stop in the middle of the footpath and look at people walking past, each of them turning and ticking away like the immensely complex mechanisms they are. These books prevent you taking other people for granted. Sometimes, I wonder to myself, ‘How would Tolstoy view this? What would he think of me?’
Reading these books has also reinforced my belief that the vast amount of popular entertainment is ‘shit’. I mean that one-hundred-and-ten-per-cent unapologetically. I mean, I look at a show like Neighbours or Home and Away and it makes me want to puke. To see the complexity of a human being reduced to this narrow spectrum of emotions makes me sick. And I sincerely believe there is something corrupt in the consumption of that stuff; I suspect that a lot of people watch it because they want to believe that they, and their lives, are that simple. It gives them permission to be simple.
Reading is important to me, and has made me even more contemptuous and resentful of crap. At age 35, I know when I get roped in by a crap film that it’s stolen two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. When I think about War and Peace and The Scarlet and the Black, glossy and uncracked on my bookshelf, I think about them like the pyramids. The thought of dying without having really seen them is something I can’t accept.
One of my favourite books of recent times was Moby Dick. I met a lawyer when hanging around the Portuguese settlement of Panjim in India who said, ‘I think Melville wrote that book so it was just like a sea journey; it really makes you as bored as those guys must have been stuck on the Pequod.’ To my considerable surprise, Moby Dick absolutely knocked me out. It’s like a boy’s own adventure on massive amounts of human growth hormone. It also has one of the most bizarro structures I have encountered, not to mention the best ending of any story I have heard or read or seen.
One of my absolute pet-hates are people who tell me a book is boring and, for that reason, won’t read it. They generally accompany this statement with an imperious sniff and a toss of the head. The truth of this reaction is that these people are threatened by what they are reading. They are intimidated by the fact that the book makes them feel stupid and therefore, they will not engage with it.
When I read a book, I generally pick it up as if I have wandered into a crop circle. Some of these books are the work of intellects that border on the freakish. I love to feel the architecture of the novel vibrate around me, and to see what my own intelligence will fork from it. I think I have a pretty good idea of how intelligent I am now, and I know that my ability to digest these things isn’t just about intellectual horsepower. It has a lot to do with life-experience, my education (formal and otherwise) and my discipline.
Above all, I want to know what Melville thinks. What Tolstoy thinks. The average plot-zombie can’t cope without a story that tows them in. Shakespeare does do this; the end of every first act has a hook to pull you in. A lot of books don’t, however. If that’s your expectation, you won’t get a damn thing from Jean Genet other than bleary eyes and a headache.
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz musician, was interviewed by Ken Burns for his documentary, Jazz. In one of my favourite segments, he talks about wild man and saxophone virtuoso, Charlie Parker. Parker typifies the myth of the genius who can invoke angels with his horn, but can’t even put his pants on without help. Add a heroin addiction into the mix and you’ve got a serious problem. The staple to this myth of the hopeless genius is that when Parker unveiled his astonishing style, a genuine right-angle in the history of Jazz, people hated it. When queried about this, Marsalis says, ‘Shakespeare doesn’t come to you. You have to go to Shakespeare. Charlie Parker, he doesn’t come to you. You have to go to Charlie Parker.’