In praise of reading

By Rhonda Dredge

New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton filled the CBD’s Deakin Edge theatre with readers during Melbourne Writers Festival, using the delicate art of narrative to give them wings.  

Catton’s most recent novel, The Luminaries, took her five years to write and is a structural masterpiece set in the New Zealand goldfields. The novel uses old-fashioned storytelling techniques she gleaned from several preparatory years spent reading historical works.

Many critics mourn the passing of nineteenth century “realism” but Catton has been able to resurrect the genre by the use of extensive research.

She told an attentive audience that she might spend two years taking notes before beginning on a fictional project.

She wrote the 832-page novel, which won her the 2013 Man Booker prize, in one draft.

Catton is so convinced that reading is the answer to writing that she has set up a $15,000 fund for New Zealand writers to encourage them to read more. Writers can apply for a grant for a reading project then write a report for her website Horoeka Reading.

Catton backed up her provocation by delivering a lecture on reading, entitled On Purpose. She claims that the contemporary tendency to put an economic or market value on all activities has defined reading in terms of its utility.

No-one denies that intelligence can be acquired through reading but she says that the endpoint does not justify the means. In the imaginative effort put into reading “purpose is everything” rather than something tacked on at the end.

“You make a sacrifice and can’t go back again,” Ms Catton told the packed theatre. Reading is a counterpoint to ‘”ethical cynicism” which leads to erosion of story.

“You can’t read if you’re bored,” she said. “The picture won’t go on like it does on TV.”

Catton, whose mother was a children’s librarian, is the youngest author to win the Man Booker. Many of her ideas are based on the narratives she read as a child.

“Reading can’t be delegated or mass-produced,” she said, for it deals with fine distinctions of meaning at the level of the word. Every nuance will be picked up by a reader who is looking for clues.

The fictional world might appear normal but the paintwork will be slightly blacker, the atmosphere a little gloomier and strange little creatures might be lurking in cupboards.

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