This is an edited version of my talk at Balaklava Library yesterday where I launched the National Year of Reading. It was a wonderful event and great to see so many book lovers in a small farming town in South Australia, engaged with reading and talking about books and writing. Fabulous to meet some aspiring young writers too!
When I was very small, the library was the most exciting place I knew. Even before I could read, I remember sitting on the carpet with that toddler-distraction device with the hard wires and the beads, pushing the beads around, and thinking one day, one day, I am going to be able to read all of these books. The library was a heaven of possibilities.
I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, lucky to be taken to the library, and lucky to have parents who were great readers and always read to me. It instilled in me a love that will last my whole life. Reading will be my longest relationship.
Don’t tell my teenager this, but as a teenager I used to wag school. I’d head into the city and look for something to do, and I’d usually end up spending most of the day in the public library, reading. (I was very cool.) It was the only place I could be alone with my imagination; it was also somewhere I didn’t look too illegal in the uniform. Reading can be a private and an illicit pleasure.
Lately, the reading experience has been changing. Information comes from more sources than ever before. We read more widely and more electronically. We talk more about what we are reading, share recommendations online, have passionate conversations about books with people on the other side of the world as well as over the back fence. Reading is becoming more social. And in this transition, the library remains what it has always been – a hub of possibility and an opportunity for equal access.
Reading is a great equaliser. For one thing, you are never alone with a book. A character from a 19th Century novel might speak to you of your own desires and choices, and feel closer to you than any of your friends. A good book is always good company.
And that can redefine for us who is a stranger. In a world where people constantly try to break it down to Us and Them, reading exposes us to the stories of others. People near and far, with lives very different from our own. It’s a very cheap way to travel the world. It enables us to imagine other possible worlds – and impossible ones – and think about how we might improve our own. A great book is nothing short of magic.
I will always be grateful to libraries and librarians, and the people who read to me before I could reach the shelves.
Not everyone grows up in a house full of books. But everyone has access to a library, and I think that this is one of the great achievements of democracy. Because language is power.
I want to end with a quote from one of my favourite writers, Ursula Le Guin, from her essay ‘A Few Words to a Young Writer’:
To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.
A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.