Why reading great literature matters
Not long ago I was asked to judge the Jean Yates Writing Prize for 2016 for year 11 & 12 students at Hobart’s Friends School. Along with the awarding of the prize, I was asked to give a speech about why reading matters. It caused a bit of a stir – so here it is in full.
WHY READING GREAT LITERATURE MATTERS
I know that about half of you, when you heard the word ‘speech’, drifted off. I’m inviting you to drift back and be present. Great. Thank you.
So, you’re in year 11 & 12 – at one of the most elite schools in Tasmania – and no doubt all your schooling life you’ve been told that reading and writing matters.
But let’s say you gave it up. You decided that you were only going to read Facebook or Twitter feeds – your texts and your emails.
You might read a bit of Buzzfeed and check in with John Oliver from time to time … maybe you’d click on a few links that take you here and there …laugh at the day’s Ninegag jokes – but basically you stop reading.
And when you wrote things you only posted comments on Facebook – or YouTube. You sent a few emails and a fair few texts. Slowly you used emojis more and more. Wrote another thousand texts, another thousand emails, and another thousand posts.
And really … would life be so much worse?
But pretty soon, if everyone did that, we’d be back to hieroglyphs. And somewhere on that trajectory, we’d have gotten pretty limited in our thinking. In a world currently threatened by people who have limited thinking, that seems a very unwise route to take. Ignorance is a cancer we do have a cure for. But it has to be treated every day.
Still maybe books have gotten old. Maybe they’ve gone out of date. I mean real books are kind of bulky and they don’t have a built in torch or a Spotify app.
But if we stopped reading, how would our stories be remembered? We are, after all, storytelling animals. And if we lost the craft of good writing, who would write the great speeches that change our society? Who would write the great characters that teach us to empathise with other people and other lives? Who would debate the bigger things in life – our innate sense of loneliness, our underlying lack of connection? Where would all the stories for the movies come from?
When I talk to primary school children I tell them it doesn’t matter what they read – comic books, graphic novels, poetry, picture books, children’s novels – it just matters that they read. Getting in the habit of reading – and then I can only hope that they get the reading bug – that will take them on into better and bigger and bolder books.
But at your age it does matter what you read.
For three reasons. Firstly, you are Tasmanians – you live at the bottom of the world and everyone – when you head out there – across Bass Strait and beyond to study or work – everyone will think you had a lesser education – no matter what school you went to.
And secondly – the reason it matters what you are reading – is because everyone else out there isn’t reading. It’s likely that the people sitting on either side of you today are not reading. Our devices have replaced our books as our travelling and life companions. But if you want one thing – just one thing – to set you apart when you enter the world of employment and find yourself up against the five hundred other kids with your same degree and your same good looks, your same service record and your same sense of entitlement – because they too are from good homes – the one thing that will set you apart – is the life experience you have gained within the pages of the hundred great classic novels – and that’s just a starting point.
By the time you’re 25, if you start now, and you read a novel a week approximately, you could have read 400 great novels – and not long after that – you’ll have read 1000. Every one of them is a step out of being like everyone else – to being uniquely you. Because reading is a deeply creative process. It helps you to know yourself. And getting to know ourselves is the real job we humans have.
When you know yourself, employers see that – future partners see that. Bank managers see that. They may not be able to put their finger on it. Elsewhere they might put it down to the fact you’re a Tasmanian – after all, everyone knows we’re a bit different. But really it will be that you have honed not simply your mind – and also your heart and your soul.
There is nothing like your imagination – your very own imagination – left to explore itself through the pages of great books – to craft you into the person you glimpse that you would like to be.
You’ve learned the first and most vital trick to creativity thanks to life in a Quaker school. Sitting in silence. So beyond here, apply it. Practice sitting in silence and avoiding the desire to reach for a device. The magic won’t take long to happen. Your imagination will begin to entertain you. Watch it flourish.
And here is the third reason why reading good literature matters.
As a person who has also spent thirty years in advertising, let me tell you that self-aware, imaginative and happy isn’t what the economy needs you to be. The economy needs you to be fearful, unhappy and ignorant. Because fearful, unhappy and ignorant people buy things. They buy things every day. They fill up their homes, they fill up the landfill, they fill up the planet. And that makes the current economic model work.
Happy people simply don’t need to fill up their lives with things. They fill up their lives with ideas.
Every new gadget you feel you need, every new piece of clothing, every new status symbol you yearn for and every dumbed down news report you consume, every hour you spend in unproductive social media, TV shows, HBO and Netflix, is an hour you are not creating anything.
And what happens when you don’t create anything? You get unhappy. And what happens when you get unhappy? You get fearful. And then you buy things. It’s very simple. We are rats on a wheel of emotional starvation. Emotion, want, buy, consume – and round it goes. So there you have it. The perfect consumer cycle.
Unhappiness is a nasty thing to live with. I’m sure some of you already know that. Creativity can lift you away from all that.
It is like the difference between cleverness and intelligence.
As the philosopher Eckhardt Tolle says – ‘Cleverness pursues its own little aims. Intelligence sees the larger whole in which all things are connected.’
And reading literature – reading great literature – is the fastest way to see how all things are connected.
Your school education is almost at an end. Beyond here you’re on your own. So get educated – but stay educated. Get creative – but stay creative. Wake up. But stay awake.
Books are your short cut. Books may take time – but you will become a faster reader. They may not be simple – but your mind will become more complex. They may not be easy to carry – but audio books are. They may not be contemporary. That’s ok, you won’t be either in a few years time.
If you have any sense that you want to live a big life, then get off the rat’s wheel of social media and fast food tv, consumption and mindlessness and get engaged in literature. The surprising outcome will be that you get satisfied.
You’ll find your sense of isolation, your underlying loneliness diminishes. What you read and write on social media, in texts and emails, is not what will take you there. But I assure you, reading the great novels will.
Heather Rose, October, 2016.