I read the novel Silas Marner when I was about 14, and I remember two things about it: there was an elderly male character, and that I didn’t really enjoy it. In fact, I trudged through it, page by page lamenting my lack of enjoyment until I finished it. Yet, in reading the entirety of Silas Marner I realised the wonderful sense of accomplishment in finishing something – the power of completing. I learned that sometimes you start and complete things, even if you don’t enjoy them at the time (like running off a hangover) ; even if the task is far from your best work (many an assignment or exam has gone this way) or you’re generally quite appallingly awful at it (see me and nearly all sports). My personality is naturally a bit ‘If I can’t win the match, I don’t see any point in stepping on to the court’, so to understand that sometimes you just do something for its own sake rather than to enjoy or win, was a fantastic lesson to learn at an impressionable age. Even now, I often think of the ‘Silas Marner effect’ when I’m doing something which is tough, but that I’m aiming to complete.
I thought once again of Silas Marner and George Eliot when I heard Paul Cameron, CEO of Booktrack, speak at the Auckland Tedx Conference a couple of weeks ago. Paul shared that some 33% of US high school students will never read another book after graduating, and some 42% university graduates won’t read another book after finishing their degree. Nearly half of the world’s ‘superpower’s most educated people never read a book after entering the ‘real world’. Oh Em Gee – that is scary, and not just for the book writers and readers of the world. Books and reading encourage imagination and independent thought. A great novelist will paint a scene with their words, but they always allow the space for the reader to bring their own experiences to the scene, and paint it with their own palette. The old adage that the film is never as good as a book is true because a film is one interpretation of the spaces and gaps deliberately left by the novelist. All the colours are filled in with someone else’s palette, leaving nothing for the viewer to do but absorb. Books allow us to imagine our own heroes and villains, based on our life experiences: heroes and villain which may be nothing like the Hollywood archetypes.
It’s not really surprising that reading has taken a hit in the last decades. I finished high school as cellphones became the norm for youth, but now in the multi-screen age there’s always something competing for part of our attention. To read a book, to actively ‘do’ rather than passively observe, requires real attention. You need to get into the state of ‘flow’ – the ’mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.’ Even with the phones, tablets, tvs and other screens switched off, it can be hard to quickly get ‘into the flow’ of reading if our minds are still whizzing on other thoughts. Booktrack, ‘soundtracks for books’ is a software which has been created to get around this problem. Users read from an E-reader and simultaneously listen to a soundtrack especially created for the book they’re reading. It’s an interesting invention, and no doubt will be widely taken up by commuters who already listen to music in tandem to reading a good book. It’s a solution and suggestion to a modern problem. There is something sad about this modern solution though. It suggests that we need more noise, more technology, more gadgets, to allow us to engage in an activity which fundamentally requires stillness and silence.
This year, New Zealand was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book, the biggest book fair in the world with over 7,500 exhibitors. Working under the theme ‘While You Were Sleeping’, Aotearoa’s best, brightest and most beloved authors and associated literary peoples (and the odd celebrity chef) spread a message about the power of New Zealand’s written words. No doubt those who attended the book fair and the extended literary world were impressed by the calibre of literary works being produced by our island. But clearly, most of the world is not tuned in to what is happening in the written world. With their attentions split on so many things at once, there’s little opportunity to find that sense of flow with anything, let alone a book.
Perhaps this blog post is not the best I’ve written, perhaps it is not the most insightful, and it’s certainly not the wittiest. But in writing the post, I have exercised the lesson I learned from reading Silas Marner – the power of completing. These less obvious lessons learned from reading cannot be captured by film or other passive mediums. To learn you must be active and seeking your own knowledge of the world, not passively absorbing what is being fed.