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On Reading

Jan 4, 2012

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Like the cool, quiet hours linking dawn and daylight, the days between Christmas and the first day of a new year seem similarly stolen, and tantalising in their possibility. For me, it was a time to catch up on forgotten books in the steadily growing and increasingly precarious mountain beside my bed.

In an essay in The White Album, Joan Didion wrote of ‘spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.’ For me – and anyone with an interest in books – life is similarly spent reading and re-reading and not reading all the novels you’d like to have consumed.

I often think of my reading choices as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. Which novel do you choose? If you take the Penguin Classic, turn to page xi and feel worthy. If you choose the Man Booker Prize winner, turn to page 1 and feel zeitgeist-y. With all the novels in the world to read and only a certain amount of time in which to read them, to commit to one book is to inevitably sacrifice others. To read a new novel is to deny yourself the pleasure of returning to an already read and loved story. Sometimes we don’t get to choose at all – work, study commitments, life determines the path of our reading adventures for us.

My first half of last year was spent as a university tutor in a subject entitled Art/Porn/Blasphemy/Propaganda – so my winter months were spent in the literary company of perversity, gore, sadomasochists, serial killers and forbidden language. All in the name of exploring literary censorship of course! There was the occasional break to catch up on Franzen for his visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and a thesis chapter on L.A. fiction which saw me in the company of Didion, Fante, Fitzgerald, West and Chandler. My literary year was thus lived overwhelmingly in the past – the classics read, of course, at the expense of many of the latest releases.

The dawning of a new year is an appropriate time to reflect upon our own reading goals  – especially in this, the National Year of Reading. Last year brought important debates about literature, publishing, and the choices we make as readers:

The representation of female authors – which spawned the wonderful Stella Prize, Meanjin’s all-female Tournament of Books, and is now culminating in the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge – was a particularly important issue, and something many of my friends and I have added to our reading resolutions in an attempt to redress this pervasive and often unconscious gender imbalance.

Where we buy our books also became a political decision. The lure of online prices meant the demise of many retail booksellers. As unlikely as it may once have seemed (I often think of the Black Books episode in which the presciently named ‘Goliath Books’ opens up beside Bernard’s secondhand bookshop) it was the Goliaths that came crashing down, with the survival of the indie booksellers relying on our continued support. While the evolution of e-readers meant that the manner in which we read and purchase books has become as fraught a decision as the novels we select.

I’d love to hear about everyone’s reading resolutions for this year. In your own literary ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story, which paths in 2012 will you take?

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