How do you read?

Reading a book seems a straightforward thing. Be it on a page, an e-reader, on your phone, even listening to an audio recording, we’re all in the author’s hands, following the same path on this journey. Interactive multi-media books might be coming, but they’ve not taken hold of us yet.

But I’ve recently been struck by the differences in how we carry out this simple act, how we engage with this experience. Readers have favourite ways to read. And like the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who recently wrote about her book addiction, it might be an experience so intense that it takes over your life.

Making space and time

Me? I’ve learnt to slow down. I read for the beauty of language, the clever construction of words as they create meaning and bring forth worlds.

I like to read uninterrupted—by kids, partner, fellow commuters, schedules. While I appreciate Danny Katz’s observation that the toilet provides just such a space, a numb bum takes away from the pleasure somewhat…

I won’t read until I have dedicated time to wholly engage, and in a comfortable spot. During the day, a Protestant work ethic kicks in and I feel I should be doing something else, but after dinner is perfect—on the couch, with good light and a glass of wine. Bedtime is good. Holidays and plane trips are good.

I won’t read on public transport because it’s just too bitty. Too fraught with having to engage with other people, or watch out for my stop. I worked for a man once who would read on the train to work, then along the footpath, and in the lift, only closing the book when he reached his office.

But me? I like to hold a finger in my page—or look up from an e-reader—and drift off into my own thoughts; I love the freedom of having nothing to keep pace with, nothing to miss if I wander away for a moment. And I love to reread a sentence over again, just to take in its wonder (and which is why I’m not remotely interested in audio books).

Respect!

I won’t read into the night when tiredness swamps comprehension and I find I am rereading a line three times. And I’ll stop when I start skating through, only reading for plot. Writing, good writing, is the hardest thing. When authors put their soul into each word, each sentence, to skim is to do them a disservice. That said, sometimes you just have to find out!

To share, and with whom…?

For me, reading is a solitary thing, an intensely private pastime. I’ve never wanted to join a book club. That kind of parallel reading, and sharing, leaves me cold. My own response to the author, what I take away, feels like my journey alone; other people’s responses are theirs.

But sometimes, of fellow readers, I will ask—‘What are you reading?’ It’s a shared understanding that one is always reading. I’ll ask because my kind of book club is between two only so when I find a reading soulmate, I ask. Like catching sunlight falling across a room, it won’t be there for long. A reader always moves on.

The sense of an ending

Do you pause between books? I recently read Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series straight through (thank you, digital age). But series aside, when I’m between books, I’m in one world and not ready to move into another. I’m a bit antsy in those few days, a bit disconsolate.

But there’s always another. I can turn to my bookshelf that holds just those I’ve not read yet. And it’s hard to resist the lure of an e-book, always available, just one click… (I’ve heard that Amazon patented that technology and can see why).

My own reading addiction ended with a mid-career change that took a second Master’s degree, and a steep drop in income. I became a professional editor when I realised that I cared more about the words in the documents than I did about the policy, or the politics.

When I have a fresh manuscript to get on with, I couldn’t be happier.

How do you read?

 

Dymphna Cusack

Such a joy to discover a new/old writer! I am now reading everything by Dymphna Cusack (1902–1981) whose writing life was brilliantly recreated by Marilla North (Yarn Spinners, UQP 2001) at a recent Jessie Street National Women’s Library Lunch Hour Talk.

Cusack infused her literature with her passion for social justice. Women’s rights to control their bodies and their destinies was a recurring theme. Writing about poverty and power, she illuminated women’s lives in Australian society, their places taken, their freedoms ceded. Though now fifty years old, her satire and commentary on class, power and privilege remains fiercely observant and intelligent.

In The Bloody Traffic, Cusack took on the arms industry and her play, Pacific Paradise protested nuclear weapons. Though she was a well-known and popular writer internationally, Cusack had been hurt by her own country’s lack of recognition. Perhaps it is not hard to see why. She was a thorn in the side of many bastions of power.

 

If you haven’t yet read Cusack, start with Come in Spinner, co-authored with Florence James. The sheer pace of its plot, driven by a host of compelling characters, was a revelation. I recommend it highly.

For anyone who knows Newcastle, like I do, there is another reason I was intrigued. Dymphna Cusack lived in that port city for several years, literally around the corner from where my parents live today. Her books describe the parks and beaches I remember from holidays with my grandparents and she recreates them vividly.

Seeing the whole city spread out below him, he was filled with a sense of exaltation: the harbour sparkling between the winding shores of the estuary, its waters streaked with the purplish line of the river, the twin arms of Nobbys and Stockton enclosing it like the pincers of a giant crab; the huddle of buildings along the water-front; the scatter of suburbs, thinning out between coast and timbered heights; the innumerable factory chimneys, and, towering above them all, sign and seal of Newcastle’s existence, the smoke-stacks of Southern Steel and Broken Hill Proprietary under their perpetual silver-black clouds.” (Southern Steel (1953)

 

Accidental Aid Worker by Sue Liu

2004 was a terrible year for humanity. I remember the Beslen school massacre—children shot in the back by Chechen guerillas as they escaped. And just as it was about to end, the Boxing Day Tsunami hit southern Asia. This was to become a pivotal moment in author Sue Liu’s life. Accidental Aid Worker is her story of how wanting to help a community became life-changing. It is also an exploration of the complexities of aid, both moral and logistical.

On a trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, Liu is taken with the enthusiasm and spirit of her tour guide, Bruno, a Tamil. His local tour company aims to empower people, especially women, who live and work in the tea plantations. ‘His vision is to create a society where young people have access and opportunity for education, regardless of caste, class, religion and ethnicity – with a particular mission to assist the children of poor plantation workers.’ She promises to stay in touch.

Then the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hits. In its reach, its horror, the devastation is beyond belief. We see images of bodies lined up on beaches, faces bloated past identification; a woman holding her dead baby, shaking with grief. Liu gives us the numbers. ‘Indonesia’s death toll is in excess of 130,000, the missing in the vicinity of 37,000 and displaced at half a million people, Sri Lanka reports over 35,000 dead, 21,400 injured and 516,000 now homeless.’

Her affection for Bruno and the people of Sri Lanka galvanises her into organising an aid shipment: the Sri Lanka Appeal for Bruno. When she sends an email to her friends and family, she finds she has tapped into a vast outpouring of support from people desperate to help. Liu’s organising prowess is extraordinary. Single-handedly, she manages information on her website and through emails, she posts lists and guidelines for what is most needed, organises collections, sorts rigorously, accepts cash donations (gratefully, in the knowledge that shipping costs have to be covered) and is beset with fears the whole time that she will be getting something wrong.

She packs 75 boxes: tents, tarpaulins, wash basins, shoes, thongs, new and used clothing, toys, school stationery, toiletries, babies’ needs, and other essential items such as batteries, candles, rope, tools and laundry supplies. They go into a shipping container and she entrusts Sri Lankan logistics to sort it out at the other end.

While her intention was to bypass the big NGOs and deal directly with individuals, politics interferes. People want to know why her aid is for the Tamil regions. Is she supporting terrorism? Finding out who to trust, and who trusts her becomes fraught. The whispering in her head is relentless: ‘Are you just another well-intentioned ‘do-gooder’ taking risks, working outside the structure and making problems for the sanctioned and approved organisations?’ When she is moved to buy fans for children in desperately hot orphanages, she is asked by a local priest, ‘Why are you here and what do you want from Sri Lankan people?’ It is a question that stumps her.

Liu asks us to think about the conundrum of aid and its impact on the local economy: in one sense, it is a flood of ‘free stuff.’ ‘Would it be better to give money so that local traders can provide the goods?’ She doesn’t have an answer. The graft and corruption of developing economies makes administering cash difficult but she has her own heart-breaking discovery when her boxes eventually arrive. Is one person, operating independently, more agile than a large bureaucracy? Or is the security provided by the big NGOs necessary, in the end?

Liu doesn’t shy away from other hard questions—there is never enough aid. From her position on the ground, from following up and going into the crisis zones, she can see desperately poor and vulnerable people everywhere but her aid was intended for displaced coastal communities. How do we justify giving to one community over another?

And she asks us to think about travel and tourism. How do we travel about the world, respectfully? The curious phenomenon of visiting another country, another culture, to see and do things differently could be seen as an open and innocent experience, or one that is voyeuristic, even parasitic. ‘It is certainly hard to gauge the times you should listen to your gut and heed the warnings of your paranoia, or surrender to chance and opportunity. That’s what travel is supposed to teach you, how to hone your instincts to make better judgement calls but it doesn’t always work that way.’

For her provocative questioning alone, Accidental Aid Worker is worth reading but Liu also lays bare her thoughts on the big issues of love, family, friendship, grief and her own mental health. Its forays into the joys, or otherwise, of living in share housing, travel, self-employment and dealing with mid-life lighten the read.

Liu donates to community projects a percentage of each book sold and, as we approach another anniversary of the boxing day tsunami, think about copies for Christmas presents this year.

Sue Liu (2015), Accidental Aid Worker, Zulu Communications Pty Ltd, Rozelle