What would we be without stories, asks Stephen Orr.
Every parent–teacher evening I get one mum or dad who leans forward and whispers, “You know, she really likes to read.” Like, in Blokeland, it’s still a cause for concern. I say, “That’s fantastic, tell her to keep going,” and then I offer some reading suggestions, and then I’m told, “And she likes to write too.” I explain that this is even better, and then comes the story of their child’s scribbled novel, the hours spent dreaming on the weekend when he or she should be tossing netballs with Tango (as a kid I was made to cut orange quarters while my sister defended a wobbly goal). I explain that sport is actually shit, and pointless, and they seem a bit shocked, like I’ve strayed from some important, mutually-agreed-upon narrative. I tell them they’re exceptionally lucky to have manufactured a reader/writer and I’m soon telling them my story.
How, at school, the social hierarchy was a sporting hierarchy, with the J brothers at the top and the lesser sweaters, down to people like me, who were always picked last when one of the long-kickers was (inevitably) given the job of choosing sides. Then, inexplicably, half of us had to take off our shirts, our pink skin basting in its own sweat. The importance of tackling explained, “going the ball”, “manning up” and teamwork.
See, the messages are clear from a young age. The kick-a-ball programs at school, the ex-sportsmen becoming mumbling media celebrities, the dim-witted politicians plugging their tokenistic reading schemes (designed to deflect criticism from old curmudgeons like me), the airport-terminal-sized footy clubrooms currently being rebuilt in my and everyone’s neighbourhood (the old ones seem in good nick, but there are votes in it), the media fascination with the latest Princes and Saints boys up for the AFL draft.
I could go on. Obviously there are no connections between this and headlines like “Australia faces a slide into national illiteracy” in The Age. Now, I’m not saying all of this is down to a national obsession with leg breaks, but we all know that chickens come home to roost. For example, the cohort of fresh-faced year three students in 2011 sitting down for their NAPLAN writing assessment. The result – 2.8% below benchmark (Band 2). Fast forward to the same not-so-fresh-faced group of year nines completing the same test in 2017, with 16.5% below benchmark (Band 6). Why? Plenty of reasons, but one is that the language becomes more complex, the expectation of understanding context, subtext, and on it goes. All skills that come from reading, analysing, deep thinking. Not to mention an understanding of empathy, personality, life choices, cultural values and other apparently not-so-important stuff.
The next question I’m asked on parent–teacher evening is: “How do I get them reading?” After all, everyone knows reading equals good spelling, grammar, what exactly should be done with an apostrophe (although theyre becoming optional). I’m told said parent does his or her best to “keep them off their phone”. I suggest this is a good approach, but I suspect our increasing obsession with technology is taking a toll on our storytelling (and other) habits. Social media is the most oxymoronic (in its real sense) human invention. An idea that creates and reinforces isolation under the pretext of greater social connection, tricking (as Fernando Sdrigotti says), “one into the illusion of being heard” where we are “transformed into a mindless spectacle consumed only by [our] selves.” I tell parents to have books in the home, but I know this isn’t enough. To visit libraries regularly – but this only works if we have great librarians who know texts, love texts and have the ability to share texts. Book vouchers for birthdays. Parents reading, time set aside for talking about books, plenty of things. We could paint poems on walls (Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat in Paris, or Leiden’s Wall Poems).
Now, this wasn’t the piece I was going to write. I was going to tell you a story about books and what they meant to me as a child.
Firstly, there I am at the St Vincent de Paul on OG Road, aged three or four, playing on the ground as my gran, and my next door neighbour, Peggy Wright, serve customers. A few legless dinosaurs, trying on some old shoes, before I discover the books. Who knows, but I like to think Margaret Fulton was there, an early Tom Keneally, probably Neville Shute and Morris West. I do remember some old Boys’ Own collections, and Ruthless Ruff and the Wolf of Kabul. No Young Adult books in those days. No teen wizard with his wand focussed on the 12–18 demographic. You just found a book and read it. As Mrs Wright lit another smoke, folded another terylene dress and told Gran about her son, David, busy in Perth. This constant overheard dialogue taught me how to write, speak, understand, take interest in people. Engagement. Are we really engaged with each other’s stories any more? Is that the real problem? Someone would come in and people would yarn. Shit, generally, but also, the glue that held our lives together. Now we’re all too busy. Doing what, I couldn’t say.
We had a few books in the house. A Somerset Maugham omnibus. I tried Up at the Villa but it was way beyond me at seven or eight. Regardless, it introduced me to the mysteries of books. The way each page was so perfectly set out, the little marks that meant someone was speaking, the musty pages, the inscription: “To Spud, Happy Birthday, Love Bill and Clyda. January 1956.” Who was Spud? Clyda, wasn’t that nan’s name? The little Preece’s sticker. A tradition I continue today. To write in books. Names, dates, thoughts. To leave traces for the next reader, to add to the songline, the mysteries, in the same way the old Lutherans transcribed their family histories in their Bibles. Their lives becoming part of His, perhaps? That, I learned early on, was what you had to understand. So that when, as a 13 or 14 year old, my parents gave me an 1887 Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (I was reading Oliver Twist at the time), I understood the writing inside the cover: “Islington Chapel, Pleasant Sunday Afternoons for the People, First Class Prize for Regular Attendance Awarded to Mrs Knibb”. Why did so many words have a capital? How did people read such small words and, again, why did I keep smelling the pages? Was this something bad? Would it affect my brain?
Yes, as a matter of fact. My sister and I were given a set of encyclopaedias by my gran. One every week, A–B, through to Index. Much more potent than the internet, with its information overload. Books are often better, the content curated, chosen by wise minds, not by logarithms and pornographers. Too much information is at least as bad as too little. Now, I fear, everyone’s thrown out their (fun to pronounce) Funk and Wagnalls. Most depressingly many school librarians see books as surplus to their e-learning centres, their information hubs, their grim little resource nodes.
My primary years were Asterix, Tin Tin, sitting in the soon-to-be-demolished library of Gilles Plains Primary at lunch while some early version of Auskick tried to change lives on the oval. Mr Johnson (and his skivvy) introduced us to Jules Verne, HG Wells and the Greek myths. I carry my Box O’Books into each lesson now, becoming a latter-day Johnson, trying to convince students that Black Beauty is worth a read, Tolkien in its pre-filmic English, The Lion, The Witch and the Wind in the Willows. Thence to Alistair MacLean for the boys, The Guns of Navarone, or, if you really hated Nazis (and didn’t we all?), the Impregnable Target via the weekly Battle Picture Library. Great value: 95 cents (if you could sacrifice a Sunny-boy), half an hour to read and, best of all, a week later you’d forgotten the story and could start again. Agatha Christie taught me about plotting, and Frank and Joe Hardy filled my backyard (literally, reading on the lawn on a rug to escape a hot house) with toothless crims. Point being, there were stories everywhere, if only you could get off your arse and find them.
As I progressed through high school, Mrs M moved me on from Great Expectations to Crime and Punishment, and then, aged 17, I realised I wasn’t limited to kids’ stuff. Dostoevsky wasn’t that hard. Soon I’d read I, Claudius and Catch-22 and from there the habit got worse, took over, three, four books at a time, until I find myself here today, a few thousand volumes later, wondering what the hell it was all about. Thing being, I can’t tell you. Because part of each of those stories are in mine, in my world view, my ability to understand people. And if not for those books, who would I be?
Sometimes I think of that kid in the charity shop. No one put the book in my hand – I just reached for it, curious. If it gave me good things, it gave me bad. The habit of overthinking, of withdrawing from society in favour of paper worlds. But no one ever died from too much imagination. I guess it’s a balance we need to strike, but I worry, most days, that life in Blokeland will soon be story-free.