Alan Duff: A happy obsession with reading

Opinion by Alan Duff
Alan Duff: A happy obsession with reading

You know you’re getting old when your reading tastes change. In my case a higher interest in non-fiction.

Though nothing quite like a good novel by someone seriously talented like, say, Australia’s greatest novelist Tim Winton, who wrote two classics, Cloudstreet and Dirt Music, or America’s grand master of eloquence and a certain intellectual bent that yet isn’t condescending to the reader, E.L. Doctorow, who wrote classics such as Ragtime, Loon Lake, Billy Bathgate, and The March.

There is Britain’s Jim Crace who should have won the Man Booker Prize many times but that’s the judges for you: they go for the obscure and, in Elenore Catton’s case, the impossibly young if very talented.

Alan Duff

There’s that master of street dialogue from a vast cast of shady characters, the late great Elmore Leonard whom America’s literary establishment sniffed at till he got to about age 80 then his popularity was so overwhelming because, they conceded, he was one of American’s greatest writers ever.

In the last year, however, I’ve read about quantum physics (failed to grasp), the book Guns, Germs & Steel, and just started on a book about the man John Harrison, who solved the longitude problem that enabled seafarers to know exactly where they were rather than sail blindly and too often fatally.

Not having longitude at their disposal, 4 British war ships under the command of Admiral Sir Clowdisley were wrecked on the Scilly Isles with a loss of 2,000 lives. Only 2 men were washed ashore and one was the venerable admiral, only for a woman to come upon him lying injured on the shore and she murdered him for the emerald ring on his hand confessing 30 years later. 

On my last flight to New Zealand 3 weeks ago I read Parisians by Graham Robb telling the hidden history of that fabled city from 1750 to the new millennium. A fabulous read is the only way I can describe it. I’ve re-read most of Bill Bryson’s beautifully written and informative books, as well my friend Bob Jones’ book on boxing terms, Fighting Talk.

Most of the last 12 months reading have been non-fiction like Cod, more than a story about that fish species than it is another enthralling tale of humankind.

It is obvious I’m an avid reader. And with that passion comes prejudice and bias, I am happy to admit. On my thrice-yearly flights from France to Auckland and back I can report that often I am the only person reading a book, a magazine or a newspaper. My rule is, if the person sitting beside me does not read then I don’t talk. Period. Justified in my mind that I have absolutely nothing in common with someone who doesn’t – wilfully in my eyes – read, which I think disgraceful. But a bit precious on my part too; I know that. Just how it is, the gulf between readers and non-readers.

To further indulge my prejudice, what possible interesting thing could any plane passenger have to tell me if they watch movies and/or play video games on each 11/12 hour leg? What could they possibly inform me of that might stimulate or even titillate my interest? None I say. So that’s that.

Decades ago I woke up to a certain sub-culture amongst some rugby players that can only be described as idiocy. So I stopped going to the club after a match. We won’t go into the sordid, mindless details. I still love rugby and always will.

It’s been something of an obsession with reading that has taken up a reasonable chunk of the last 21 years. A happy obsession that has given both our team and hundreds of thousands of children great joy and our sponsors huge satisfaction seeing their money put to good use providing children with books. Hopefully these children will grow up and develop that distaste for people who wilfully do not bother to read.

Why is reading so important? One reason is, it takes you out of yourself into a world that is not necessarily about you and often not even a vague reflection. It informs of things you did not know and more often than not enlightens, indeed elevates you the lucky reader.

We should all learn to love a world not about us as individuals. I enjoy listening more than talking. Though of course get to have a say in my writing. I love intimate and in-depth conversations, most things interest me except the topic of me, myself and I. You know the type. Self-obsessed egotists and narcissists who never talk about anything but themselves.

A writer by definition is supposed to be a listener and observer. There’s the old adage that says the person talking is not learning. And the empirical argument that there is no such thing as a successful society that is not literate. The written word is better than beautiful and we should all be grateful for its invention.


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