Tuesday, 30 August 2016
Reading Books For Pleasure Live-on-Air Practical Theology from #kiwiconnexion
Ian Faulkner, Elise Macadam and David discuss the pitfalls and pleasures of reading today in a media-savvy world.
Full script of video
Elise: My name is Elise MacAdam. I am an English teacher and head of media studies and English at Birkenhead College.
David: Ian, you were teaching all your life in a variety of situations before you became Principal at Wesley College.
Ian: Correct. I had nearly 15 years at Mangere College, then four and a half years at Opononi Area School, then 12 years as Principal of Reporoa College, and then I’ve just completed 12 years as Principal of Wesley College.
David: Right, so between the two of you, you’ve amassed a lot of years in education. I’m really quite curious as to why you think reading may be losing ground in today’s contemporary culture. Any reasons for that in your opinion, Elise?
Elise: Well, if you look at the neurological facts; 60,000 items get processed when you look at something visual. So it’s really fast to take in a lot of information. Reading is something that has to be worked with. It’s cognitive heavy-lifting. It’s like going to the gym and putting some heavy weights on that bar and doing it. Humans are lazy, so we’d rather choose what gives us the maximum deliver for the minimum effort.
David: I like that. Ian, have you got any thoughts on that same issue? Why do you think we’re losing a little bit in terms of reading?
Ian: I’m trying to convince myself that is true. As I think it through, certainly holding a book open in one’s hand and working through it, as I would have done as a child and a young person seems to go, but people that I observe still do a lot of reading. They might just read on the screen, or another device. I also see, in picking up Elise’s point, the visual stimulation which is now available. So, I can go into whatever it is that Sky gives you, that I can play back any program that they’ve screened for weeks on end, and that takes up my time. There are some that I must watch every week, and that basically comes down to at least an hour a day. So that’s an hour’s less reading that what I would have done some years ago.
David: For me, the act of reading was an act of pleasure, and I’m picking that for the two of you, you would be enthusiastic about reading because it gave you pleasure. Did you ever have a favourite book, Elise?
Elise: The Great Gatsby is a go-to of mine. I just think it is beautifully written. It’s got such phenomenal themes and magnificent characters that are layered so well. Even though it was written in the 1920s, that message - well, there’s so many messages, is just still current today. You know? That sense of [...being rotten at the core, and dreams being unattainable, and so we beat on [4:00] boats against the current ... ceaselessly into the past, and that’s what we do all the time. So yeah, I just find it a magnificent novel, but not for everyone.
David: Any books that really have grabbed your attention, Ian?
Ian: I just read whatever I can find, and sometimes I’ll pick up a book maybe like a Wilber Smith, and I simply cannot put it down. I will read it until it’s finished. Others I will pick up and read a chapter and decide .. with this, and then pick it up again three months later, and really quite enjoy it. So, a lot of it depends on my mood.
David: The act of reading really started to get going when I discovered Agatha Christie at about the age of 10 or 11, and then later on as a young teenager I found CS Lewis’ science fiction trilogy about Mars and Venus and then event on earth, but it wasn’t until I had almost finished university that I came across Lord of the Rings. That was like a bolt from the blue. This was writing in a way that I’d never discovered it before, and that’s when the thrill of reading really started to take hold in me. I read the Lord of the Rings, and then I went back and immediately read it again. So, that was a key kind of book. What it did for my reading habits later on; I think it actually forced me to realise that reading required an active imagination on my part. So when I was reading, I had to participate with the author. I’m wondering whether you think that in today’s day and age, with the ability of social media, through things like Facebook, but particularly for me for Kiwi Connexion, whether you think is ability of the reader, to be able to respond to the writer so quickly, has actually helped the act of reading. It’s a much more collaborative affair now.
Elise: Well, I think that only applies to a certain sort of reading. I think if you’re talking about something like novels, which is still your traditional paper-based published reading, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Perhaps blog posts or things like GoodReads or Amazon Feedback can give the author some sort of indication, but it’s more sort of after the fact; it’s already published - the commitment has already been made. So it very much depends on what the format is, I think, as to how much assistance it can be.
David: Do kids get turned on to social media because of that ability to get quite instant feedback and recognition?
Elise: Yes, but I don’t necessarily feel that it’s reading anything that’s got any substance. It’s the kind of every day conversational stuff I think that is generally just chatted about verbally. I don’t see a lot of social media having a lot of depth.
David: So, the question of aesthetic is really quite critical to this whole area. I think particularly in fiction. There is an aesthetic for writing non-fictional works, but when you get into something like Great Gatsby or War and Peace or something like that, the quality of the fiction has to, in a sense, go up a level to be able to attract people into this world of very big ideas that are being explored, whether it’s human emotions, the drama across - it could be war, could be peace - whatever. I’m really a bit worried that in the internet age, we’re losing our aesthetic sense - the ability to judge well. I’ll come to you on this first, Elise; any comments about that?
Elise: Well, one of the things that I often encounter with students is that they feel that fiction is made-up, and because it’s made-up it is a waste of time. So I tend to say to them, let’s step away from the whole discussion around books, and take something like ice-cream, for instance; you could say, well if you were watching what you’re eating, that’s a waste of calories, but you like doing it, so you’re going to actually do it. It’s consuming what you actually really like, and what gives you pleasure. Very often, it’s going to deliver the greatest amount of pleasure to actually get into something that’s made up, because it takes you into a different world; it allows you to live vicariously. That’s something that internet reading very seldom does.
David: It takes you into a different world, and that world actually exposes your own feelings - your own emotions, doesn’t it? The fact that it’s made up...
David: Yeah. Ian, do you sense that fiction is a way for young people to get into reading, as opposed to reading for information?
Ian: I’m sure that’s the case, because you’ve only got to think back maybe two weeks ago to the release of a particularly popular book; people queued up outside bookstores waiting for the store to open so they could pick it up. So there’s clearly, for that group - for that avid reader, that excitement about getting the next chapter. I seem to remember as a boy, a weekly chapter that came out in some sort of magazine. I’ve totally forgotten what it was about, but I remember the excitement of every Thursday, being able to go to the village store, and picking up that week’s edition.
Elise: As well, so often, if you can find something - you said for yourself; you got the reading bug when you were able to discover the joys of reading Agatha Christie. For one of my sons it was a series called Ranger’s Apprentice. For myself it was Enid Blyton, and I think if you can find that thing that sort of hooks someone into reading, that’s the key to actually making them enjoy it and finding fun, but sometimes you have to persist, and that’s a bit of a problem sometimes for modern parents; they just don’t have the inclination or don’t have the time to do it.
David: Elise, you said, when you were introducing yourself, you belonged to a book club. Does the book club help in this active reading?
Elise: Yes, absolutely. Two of my favourite books that I would put on the list to suggest to you that would be good to read, I came across in the book club, and I doubt I would have picked them up on my own. One is called Burial Rites, and I can’t remember the name of the author, but it’s B.U.R.I.A.L and then R.I.T.E.S. It’s translated from Icelandic. It’s set in Iceland, and it’s one of these wonderful books that melds facts. So it’s all about a trial that was held, and the characters populating the book were actual people, but then of course the author has taken that license that a good author does, and woven this magnificent story beautifully told, beautifully written. Then the other is The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared. David: Oh yes. Elise: That’s translated from Swedish. They take key world events and weave that into the narrative. I laughed my head off when I was reading that novel - thoroughly enjoyed it, but I doubt I would have picked it up. So, yeah it’s great.
David: So, in a sense, the book club provides a kind of a social backdrop for reading together - reading for a purpose. I’m just going to bring up in front of the camera this particular book called The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom. Yeah, Harold Bloom the eccentric professor of Yale University; one of the most incredibly erudite people about William Shakespeare, but in his book on the Western Canon, he tells us something extremely important. He compiles lists in four different eras of the printed book - sorry, across civilisation, going all the way back to the Greeks. He says these are the books that hopefully an educated person will read over the course of a lifetime. When I looked at his books, the percentage I was reading was like that, compared to these very extensive lists. He makes the point that of course the world is swamped with a flood of literature, and some of it is outstanding and a lot of it isn’t outstanding. That comes back to the aesthetic thing, but he does feel - it’s sort of like the book club on a grand scale, that the Western Canon is a set of literature that everyone ought to aspire to read so that they have some things in common that they can discuss. Now, obviously from a Christian perspective, I’m really interested that he puts in the Bible, but alongside that he also puts the Qur’an. He also puts the Hindu sacred scriptures and so on, but his plea is that the Canon is disappearing, because the flood of literature is now just so immense. This is why I think the idea of the book club and particularly when we’re talking about young people at school, the English teachers or the teachers in general are guiding them to read certain books that will be helpful for the rest of their lives. Did both of you, from a teaching background, feel that that’s important?
Ian: I wonder whether the selection of books for our students to read at secondary school level is designed to expand their horizons, or whether it is designed because these are approved works, which can then be used for assessment purposes. The current teacher might like to comment on that.
Elise: Yeah, I think part of the problem is we’re having to serve many masters, and so you have to get good results, you have to be able to ensure that the books that you teach are accessible to your students life experience, and at the same time you’re trying to enrich them and offer them that vicarious experience; you’re trying to give them a nod towards the sorts of things that they might not necessarily choose to pick up themselves, like I was talking about with the book club. I think the essential difference perhaps between a book and a film that I’ve really noticed is that with a book, you’ve got this shared ideology that you can bond over, whereas with a film people can watch a film and say that they really like it, but actually what they really enjoyed was a particular actor’s performance, because they really like that actor, or they like a cinematographer and they really appreciated the lighting and the composition of the shots and the framing. So I think books, as Harold Bloom said, offer that particular chance to sort of develop that shared sense of some special spark that’s gone off in both people’s minds. One of the books that would be in the Canon is Steinbeck’s’ Of Mice and Men, which I teach at Year 11. The number of students who, from such a wide range of social backgrounds, and then the number of people that you meet of adults, who still remember that book, and the impact that it made on them, means that there is still a case to made for some of these classics to be taught, rather than just teaching a short story that you get through quickly and easily and you don’t have as many stresses and strains of getting...
David: I’m really interested in this idea that you’re starting to draw out now; some of the parallels and also some of the differences between reading a book and watching a movie. The actor watching a movie, which Elise and I have discussed at length a couple of broadcasts ago, involves in many respects, far more of our whole being compared to reading a book. Reading a book is a kind of very specialist activity. Of course there are a lot of people that can’t read. One of the people that are watching noted that as you get older your eyesight diminishes. The actual physical act - you might have macular degeneration - there are the people that are dyslexic that find it really hard to work with the printed word. There are those that couldn’t read - were never able to read. So in a sense, the act of reading - I’m not going to say it’s got some exclusion criteria, but if you can read, you are in a different category than if you can’t read. This question of literacy I think is a major issue in the world today. That’s why I think reading for pleasure is something that has to be inculcated into the young as much as we can possible do it. By the time they get to secondary school I suspect that the switch has either been set on or off.
Ian: I found it was always much easier working in my last 12 years with largely a male audience; they would read if there was an immediate use for what was being read. So; I read this piece of writing because it will enable me to do whatever it is that’s required, be it working how to tune a carburettor or how to plant a garden, but in many cases, to ask them to sit with a novel and to find that a pleasurable experience was just impossible for it to happen.
David: Yeah. Elise, do you find that the students that you get - that the switch is either turned on or off by the time they get to secondary school?
Elise: Yeah, that does tend to be the case. No case is every completely hopeless. We always keep trying - keep suggesting ways that people can access reading, but you know, one of the things that is so special about reading fiction is that it offers so much more in terms of the neurological benefits - really write well, as well, because there tends to be a little bit more crafting that goes into writing fiction than non-fiction. So that’s something that we really try and push as much as possible.
David: Look, I’m so glad you mentioned that, because it was going to be one of the points that I wanted to bring up overall; that the act of reading also stimulates some people to the act of writing.
David: Writing is something that - well, the three of us have probably all done a lot of professional writing in our day. Have either of you ever done fiction writing?
Elise: A marginal amount.
David: Well, I’ve done a lifetime of fictional writing; preaching sermons is very much an act of creating a work of fiction, even as a written art form and then a preached art form - I think is probably the most neglected art form or genre in writing today, but it’s actually got quite an honourable history, if you go back in the past. There used to be books of sermons and so-on, that were doing the book club function, in some ways; you would do this for edification - this idea of learning to read well so you can learn to write well. What I’ve been doing in Kiwi Connexion in the last few weeks is working with this idea of a zine. Now, the zine concept was new to me a few months ago - introduced me to it, and a zine of course has been around since the 1960s unbeknown to me, and it was like a little comic strip kind of form to begin with, obviously came from the word magazine, and it struck me that many people that are in churches are actually very good writers, because they’ve spent a lifetime reading important books, including some of the Biblical books, and sometimes in study groups they’ve been discussing these concepts for year and years, just like book club. The zine might be a way of assisting a creative process to occur where we take just a snatch of an author’s work, and we put - I’m talking here 400-500 words, and we put it with some quite striking graphics, and we publish it into Facebook or Google Plus or whatever. The links in the zine then take you back into the author’s work in another setting, be it Kiwi Connexion or Facebook or wherever. I was talking to Elise’s son - Stuart - and I showed him the stats; we’d produced three zines so far, and a total number of words written by three different authors, probably no more than 1500 words, and we had generated eight and a half hours reading time of well over 100 people would normally we wouldn’t expect to see reading these things. It kind of revitalised what I thought; we’ve got teachers like yourselves with years of experience and we’ve got people that want to say things in today’s world of social media, but we need to give them a little bit of a hand-up into how to do that, and how to write within an aesthetic quality. Now, I’m very lucky because the people that are writing the zines that I’m doing the graphics for - they know how to write very well in the first place, but what about some of the others, you see? I think book club could say, hey - I’m not talking about doing it through Kiwi Connexion - a book club could actually start to think about; well, we read well - how do we now take the next step to writing well? As you become more of a writer, whether it’s sermons or newspaper articles or whatever - blogs; as you become more of a writer, you actually become a more avid reader. To write well you have to read really well. I’d like to sort of draw this to a bit of a close by talking very briefly about the last book I read, and then I’d invite you to talk about the last book you read. Well, I’m going to go four of five books back; the last book that I read I should have read when I was a teenager, or I should have read when I was a young adult. It was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s had such a dramatic impact on me. It’s an absolute classic. It’s an incredibly strange work in a way, but it’s one guy who, in telling this tale of the quest of the whale, is actually speaking a huge metaphor about what America is. When I look at the presidential race today - I don’t know whether any of you saw the recent Billy Connolly show where he’s on a train going through a journey in America, and he talked about the State of Arizona. I didn’t know this; Arizona was still conducting wars against the native people in 1918. Isn’t that incredible? So, the North American Indian was still in a sense being colonised right through into the early 20th Century. I did not know that. What I’m getting at here is, as an old reader now - not as a young reader - a book like Moby Dick can still have a profound influence. Is there any book you’ve read in the last year or two that’s really had a big impact on you?
Elise: Quite a few. I’m struggling to actually pick one. I think probably I’m going to pick 1000 Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, just because it deals with a period time and an area of the world that is not very often explored or written about, and that’s Afghanistan. It takes you into the world of what it’s like to be a young girl growing up into womanhood, and then getting married, and what her experiences are, and how society treats her, and what it’s like to be married with no ability to comment or choose or say anything about who you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, and then ultimately how special and precious it is to find a special bond - a connection with someone in one of the least expected places, and that’s within the polygamist family unit. I don’t want to say too much to spoil it, but it’s an absolutely magnificent novel - beautifully written, and with the most potent narrative voice.
David: Love it. That’s great. Thank you, Elise. Okay, over to Ian; a book that’s made a profound impact?
Ian: I’m struggling to think of a work of fiction that has. Some works which have made a profound impact that are non-fiction would be the writings of Bishop John Spong, simply because in reading what he has written, has expanded how I may think about Christianity and the Bible, and what those writings mean for us living in the 21st Century.
David: Yeah, Spong is one of those authors of the late 20th Century that really did make a major impact on the religious world - on the Christian world, particularly in the States where either they loved him or they loathed him, and when they loathed him they were pretty jolly mean about it. Any final comments that you would like to make before we say goodnight for Live On Air tonight?
Elise: I think one of the things for myself that I just love is a quote from Mark Twain. He said something along the lines of fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities - truth isn’t. I always love the way that he’s just making such a great ironic comment there.
David: Yeah, that’s a quote, Elise. That’s certainly one to keep at the back of the mind. Fantastic. Ian, any comment that you would like to say?
Ian: I can’t ... cap the quote. I wouldn’t like to try to cap the quote. For me, at this point in my journey, the value of being able to read good fiction is that I am allowed to escape, and I can live in another situation for maybe only 20 minutes - sometimes for a couple of hours, and at the end of that I feel as though I’m energised to begin the next phase of the journey. For me, that is the value of being able to read.
David: Both are very helpful ways to end. So, thank you very much for coming in, and we’ll see you again sometime in the future. Thank you. Good evening.
Ian: Okay, good night - good night.
Elise: Good night.