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Worlds apart: Reading and sound bites

Featherston Booktown Festival starts this weekend.

It looks set to be an amazing event with almost 100 literary A-List celebs who gather to toast the art of reading, writing, and producing books.

It’s been all over the news that New Zealand’s literacy rates have fallen off a cliff in recent years.

How many of us could comfortably say that we read as much as our grandparents did?

More of us are reading things on our phones and digesting bits of information such as 30-second news clips.

The 30-second clip — the Youtube video, the TikTok, the meme, the news bulletins — these forms are designed to make you feel one thing only – they make you laugh or pique your interest or make you angry.

The way we talk about subjects is increasingly dominated by simple, short, emotive forms from social media or advertising, and it’s easy to forget how literate this country used to be.

A book on the other hand is all about nuance – even the most cliched Mills and Boon romance makes you focus for a few hours on two lovers’ circumstances and psychology, giving you an opportunity to inspect a subject more closely.

Fiction or non-fiction [or poetry], reading any book gives you a closer, more thorough view of some subject, and that’s what makes it so good, no matter what it’s about, because it makes you think about the subject beyond your first emotive response.

A book makes you work to comprehend it – the meaning is not all laid out for you, and that work makes you a better thinker.

Understanding a book is an active process, unlike those short forms I mentioned before, where you’re more of a passive consumer of content.

Good books open your eyes to the complexity and nuance of the world and open your eyes to other lives and points of view.

They let you look at something different and expand the horizons of your empathy beyond what directly relates to you.

Our news and conversation seem to be increasingly dominated by an “us and them” narrative, which directly appeals our individual circumstances, making us angry or laughing at people different from us.

It seems to be paired with an increasing assumption that someone who disagrees with you is a bad person.

We publish a segment in the paper every day from “100 years ago” which last month reminded us that in March 1923, Masterton residents took 6741 novels from the library — when the population was only 8000. Would we see such impressive numbers today?

I write for money and study literature at university — and I’ve read about two books this year.

It’s hard work to read when we’re used to passively absorbing content all day.

But when I get going with a really good one, I can read all day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Even if it feels like a chore sometimes, I always have a more nuanced view of the world when I sit down to read about it.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Featherston, the town which hosts a massive book festival every year, is also home to 2480 of Wairarapa’s most interesting people.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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