I’ve been reading for sixty-six years, from about the age of four. I was born in Stawell in Victoria’s Wimmera and my family used to travel by car to Melbourne. I’ve been told I learned to read from the road signs and this before I went to school because that didn’t happen until we moved to Melbourne when I was five. But I’ve slowed down.
I know this because for many years I’ve kept a list in the back of my diary of the books I’ve read, with a short note on the subject of each one and a mark out of ten. I formed this habit when I was regularly reviewing books for newspapers because, at the end of the year I was often asked to nominate my three best and I needed the aide memoire. I used to read from eighty to a hundred books a year but nowadays, due to eyesight difficulties, I read less than half that number.
But I read all the time, fiction and non-fiction, and am one of those people who dread having nothing to read. To get on a train or a plane and find I haven’t got a book is a tragedy. Robert B Parker, the late American crime writer, author of the Spenser private eye novels, once said he’d ‘read everything since Caxton’. A considerable exaggeration, but one knows what he meant.
As a reader I find it hard to understand those who do not read. Sportsmen frequently fall into this category. Star North Melbourne footballer and dual Brownlow medallist, Keith Greig, was once asked to name his favourite book of the year. Greig admitted that he hadn’t read a book that year. Brilliant Collingwood goal sneak Peter Daicos said, when his as-told-to autobiography was published, ‘I’ve now written one more book than I’ve read’. American golfer Rocky Mediate boasted that he’d never read a book in his life.
A woman I knew, who was herself a great reader, tried to persuade her young son to read, without success. He said, ‘When I sit down to read I always feel I should be doing something else.’ This of course is the antithesis of the reader’s feeling, which is more likely to be a wish to be reading when doing other things.
Interested in this question as I am, I sometimes ask people about their reading habits. One friend revealed that he read a lot but mostly non-fiction. When I asked him why he didn’t read much fiction, he said he didn’t know. I enquired whether, when reading fiction, he formed the appropriate images in his head, saw the scenes and heard the voices, like an internal private film. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. I do this all the time and I suspect most committed fiction readers do the same. A more common response from non-fiction readers is that they dislike reading things that are ‘made up’.
Readers tend to pity non-readers, which is unfair and condescending. They’re doing other things with their time and aren’t addicted to the printed page. But you can’t help wondering how they can bear not to enter that world where they see things they will never see, hear things they will never hear and meet people they will never meet.