by David Barber
“To read,” says Jim Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Otago University, “is to enter a magic realm in which people are more interesting, informed, amusing and intelligent than anyone you encounter in everyday life.”
It is a realm that half of New Zealand 15-year-olds never enter, according to the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), as reported by Radio NZ this week.
The survey reported that 52 per cent of students said they only read “if I have to””. Forty-three per cent said they do not read for enjoyment, 28 per cent never read non-fiction books and 18 per cent said they never read fiction.
It is not entirely a new situation. Flynn made his bid to change it a decade ago with a book called The Torchlight List – Around the World in 200 Books. (Awa Press, 2010).
He wrote then that after more than half a century as a university lecturer one thing troubled him greatly.
“At universities in both America and New Zealand…I have noticed a trend: fewer and fewer students read great works of literature.
“And it is not just students: many of the university professors who are my colleagues no longer read outside the professional literature. Thus if you read great books, as my Uncle Ed did by torchlight, you will know more than many university professors.”
The title of Flynn’s book struck a chord with a generation that was encouraged to read and remembered being so captivated by books that they continued to read by torchlight under the bedclothes after the parental lights out.
Many of those books came from public libraries, which were well-stocked and encouraged youngsters to get the reading habit.
So what are today’s libraries doing about the current teenage aversion to reading?
Well, as the Pisa report was being published, local author Lloyd Jones was writing on The Spinoff news website about his first visit to the new library, Turanga, in Christchurch.
“It is magnificent to look at and walk around in. It has open air terraces, a terrific café on the ground floor.”
It also has a “wonderful sound recording studio”, a sewing room and a 3D printer. But where were the books, he wondered, before finding some “herded into an area barely more generous than the space on the ground-floor allocated to teenagers and video games”.
Jim Flynn had a comment on the latter nine years ago.
“Computer games are mesmerising,” he wrote. “Recently a sixteen-year-old killed his eighteen-year-old brother over access to a PlayStation. No teenager in recent years has killed another in an argument over who was to get to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”
Inquiring about the whereabouts of New Zealand books Jones was directed to the second floor where he found them “turned into shy fauna barely surviving on retractable shelves that open and close like a bivalve. The New Zealand books live in perpetual darkness until someone like me comes along to work the wheel and retract the shelves and throw light on to the titles.
“Virtually no one from my generation was represented,” Jones wrote. “A child wandering into the doors of Turanga would need to leave the trail and work hard to find anything by a New Zealand writer. Such a child living in Christchurch might even wonder if New Zealand writers existed.”
Young people need a library in a “bricks and mortar” sense to tell them that books and reading matter, he wrote.
“If they are to develop a mind that is imaginative, they will need to read.”
Wellington’s central city library, which was closed as an earthquake risk in March, used to hold 380,000 books and have 3000 visitors, including 500 children, a day. There is no schedule for reopening it or replacing it, but if that happens new mayor Andy Foster told the Dominion Post (Dec 4) that he would like it to have “creative spots and activities such as Lego and 3D printing”.
There doesn’t seem much hope for books. Victoria University’s professor of library information and management studies, Anne Goulding, told the paper libraries were moving away from being storage places for books and “transactions to building relationships in the community”.
“A library is where people go to read,” he said. “A library is where they may borrow a book. A library is one of the most honourable and civic institutions that a community can accommodate and offer to its young.”
Jones said it was all bad news for writers, New Zealand publishers and the generations just being born.
He noted the demise of the New Zealand Review of Books, which has just published its last issue after Creative New Zealand discontinued its funding, and reduced space for book reviews in the mainstream press.
Stuff’s weekend magazine now reviews only two books an issue; usually they are overseas publications.
Jones notes that the National Library is rolling out a national campaign called Communities of Readers to “engage children and young people with reading for pleasure and wellbeing”.
“Good luck with that noble objective,” he says. “What chances do they have of succeeding when all the support they might have counted on is reaching for its hat to pass out the door?”
There is little sign that his cynicism is unjustified.