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Tom Eaton

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Age of the Dinosaurs, Age of Mammals, Time Of The Writer, Age Of Youtube

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in Time of the Writer in Durbs there by the sea.

As with school, university and the working world, it wasn’t memorable because of what I learned or the worthy discussions I attended, but rather because of the people I met: the organisers with their missionary zeal, the taxi driver with his exquisite Indian head-shake, a side-to-side flick of vertebrae that speaks volumes, most of them damning; and of course the writers.

The writers were marvelous. There were the monstrous narcisists who live in a parallel universe in which their every sigh and shrug is applauded by an invisible host of slightly horny young readers. There were the earnest and fey academics who have never been away from an institution of learning for longer than a summer holiday and who don’t understand what you do (“You mean magazines don’t give you tenure? But how on earth do you get grant money!?”). There were the accidental authors, people like myself, who felt like terrible frauds, expounding as evasively as possible their theories on writing that they had quickly cobbled together in the bus on the way to the venue so that they weren’t shown up by the bloke who had gone to Cambridge to get a PhD in Talking For A Very Long Time.

And of course watching all this was the audience, everyone from naughty students press-ganged into helping organise the thing, right through to those hunched and itchy-looking creatures in raincoats who sit seething in the second row, planning their question about narrative fiction and the hegemony of the Western war machine, which ultimately comes out all in a rush, with lots of hand-gestures and in complete silence because they haven’t switched on the microphone.

It was solid fun, but as the week progressed an elephant began to take shape in the middle of the room. We dutifully talked around it, and listened attentively to those who were speaking about something rather than just speaking. But it soon became clear what the elephant in the room was; and I suspect it is an elephant that sits in every room wherever writers meet.

Put simply, the elephant was our readers, or indeed, any readers.

I’ve been to a few get-togethers with crashing bores, and when you stand and listen to their conversation, a din like that of sea-birds begins to form over the noise of words. One sound starts stabbing up through the rest: “aye”. If you listen long enough you just hear “aye aye aye”, like gannets on a rock. This noise comes from three words that are being constantly repeated at these sorts of events: “I”, “my” and “mine”.

At Time of the Writer a fourth “aye” was added to that dine: “writer”. It was added with the intention of helping develop a book culture in this country, but all it did was trap the discussion in the language of vanity, whether in the form of old-fashioned self-love or the more pernicious self-adoring verbosity of academic language, and drag attention away from the question of who was reading all the books endlessly being written by me, myself and I.

I think the Durban event is an admirable one, and I wish it well, but the Age of Youtube and Twitter has arrived. For writers to get together for a week to discuss writing, instead of planning for the mass-extinction of book readers, is rather like Stone Age cave painters having get-togethers to discuss the merits of ochre- versus blood-based paints, as the first flakes of snow start falling outside.

Yes, our schoolchildren need to write in their own languages, as someone has pointed on out this website. But why even talk about writing when there is so much reading still to do?

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 15th, 2009 @19:14 #
     
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    Tom, I always knew you weren't a narcissist. Real narcissists can spell "narcissist".

    Having bit the biter (sorry darlink, the revenge of the edited), I hope your apocalyptic vision of print matter is less accurate than your uncanny ability to foretell Test series results. Largely because I find lots of books en masse comforting. And because I can't figure out Twitter, not even after Arthur explained it to me.

    But one thing does amaze me: of the zillions (well, lots) of strangers and bare acquaintances who sidle towards me at weddings and at parties and at lectures, saying "I've written a BOOK -- well, sort of the story if my life -- and I wonder if you can advise me on how to publish it", most don't seem to have ever done any reading. I'm not joking: many can't name one single SA publisher.

    PS: Lovely piece. That man in the raincoat has been to my lectures, too.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    March 15th, 2009 @19:48 #
     
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    Too lovely, too convincing, and impossible to comment further without being yet another clamouring gannet on the rock shrieking 'aye'. Horror.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 16th, 2009 @16:54 #
     
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    Bumpage

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 16th, 2009 @17:55 #
     
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    For a second there, I thought Ben had written "Bum page".

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    March 16th, 2009 @18:30 #
     
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    It's hard work - nurturing readers, i'ts a warm hand to warm hand activity. Notions of reading campaigns and posters and reading tents leave me a bit cold.

    Liesl's post yesterday about writers in schools reading to kids and teaching kids to write, getting them to write might work, if writers read wonderful books that make them catch the reading virus (as it were).

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  • Maire
    Maire
    March 17th, 2009 @00:34 #
     
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    How to nurture a reader of poetry - leave poetry books in the loo.

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  • ar
    ar
    March 17th, 2009 @13:12 #
     
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    Aye feel so strongly about this that aye will burst if aye don’t comment. Tried and trusted foolproof Recipe for baking a Reader:

    - I cup mother sitting still and reading for fun while pregnant.
    - 2 cups someone reading to the infant every day from birth, even if it doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. Reader must actually enjoy the reading and not see it as a chore because infant is a tiny primal animal and is listening to the music in the words, not the words themselves and will know from false notes that reading is a nasty chore.
    - 3 cups first cold pressed extra virgin reading material. A proper book with actual writing in it, not necessarily one aimed at infants and not too many picture books because if the primary information about reading is presented to a child thus: “Reading is one page picture and one page monosyllabic sentence set in Very Large Type,” then that is the reading scene that is set.
    - 4 cups child witnessing people around it reading for fun.

    Method: Set aside and allow to prove. Do not poke and prod. At around age 14, bake in a moderate oven for the next few years - “Tidy your room. You live like a pig. All right fine, read one more chapter and then tidy your room. ONE MORE, do you hear?”

    This will always result in a rich, nutty, robust, nourishing and independent reader.

    But it doesn’t seem to happen much anymore because social reality and contemporary ideals and effing twitter get in the way. So how do you retrofit a reader in this environment? I don’t know. I just don’t know. We volunteer to read to infants in crèches. We break the internet and we burn down the malls and we change the world by installing despotic bibliophiles in all positions of power. “No reading today, citizen? Well then, no food and water for you.” I don’t know.

    Children needing to be read to in their mother’s tongue is a Big Thing, and when I think about the catch22 of it I get very depressed.

    We readers are here though, if it’s any consolation to you writers. We may be a smallish group but we are ferocious. It’s just that we don’t go to the writing things, being readers not writers, so we seem invisible I suppose. And we often swop books because we’re poor because we already spent this month’s grocery money on books. Just because EB has only sold 3 copies of something, doesn’t mean only 3 of us have read it. We want you to know this.

    Mr Ferguson wrote a lovely poem about why writing workshops are killing reading. My copy of Dubious Delights has vanished and I haven’t found another in the Shops, so if anyone could point me toward an online version I’d be a very happy reader indeed. Let’s not break the internet just yet.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 17th, 2009 @14:35 #
     
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    You can order Dubious Delights online; try this:

    http://book.co.za/bookfinder/ean/9781874923732

    B

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 17th, 2009 @14:36 #
     
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    ...and nice comment, btw.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    March 17th, 2009 @14:57 #
     
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    Love the recipe and have found it worked with me and seems to be working so far with my daughter, not that I am actually trying to bake a reader, can't help reading to her.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 17th, 2009 @15:21 #
     
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    Love the recipe. To add into the mix: sprinkle in permission to read at mealtimes. Permission to read anywhere, anytime, in fact. Many moons ago, I was sent home from a playdate in disgrace -- for reading. "You're not here to read!" my friend's mother snarled at nine-year-old me, snatching an offending book from my hand. (She'd have been much happier, no doubt, if she'd caught me and her son playing doctors and nurses. Or shooting up, maybe.) I went home full of wondering pity for my pal (whom I never spoke to again) and all the poor children out there for whom books were rationed or denied. (I dunno what happened to the son -- he's probably head of some huge corporate and pulling down a million a year, which probably proves Tom's point.)

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  • ar
    ar
    March 18th, 2009 @10:20 #
     
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    Ben Editor - thank you for the link. Turned the house inside out last evening looking for a missing bio textbook and, Lo! Found Dubious Delights instead. In the child’s cave, where else? I had to withdraw some of the curses I had aimed at my poxy book-stealing reader friends. A bit tatty and dog eared but still readable. The child may not ace matric bio, but it is reading Mr Ferguson’s poetry. I am content.

    Last verse of Exponential impotential:

    a planet crammed with novelists,
    a scribbling living-dead,
    all scrabbling for attention
    but doomed to be unread.

    Helen – in the new shiny world, where reading at mealtimes and on playdates is compulsory, will you consent to being appointed Supreme Ruler? Say yes!

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    March 18th, 2009 @11:41 #
     
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    Oh how Wonderful! i have fwd-d this to my mom who let me read anywhere and everywhere. i still read and "watch" Tv at the same time and am convinced that the reason i can't cook is that i was reading in the kitchen at 5pm and therefore not paying any attention. i was chastised at sooo many friends houses - i would make straight for the bookshelf, sit on the floor and open and close and make piles and read aloud and put back and pull out and smell and close and stroke and touch and feel the weight of what i could learn. (rather like i did at your house Helen, at 2am in formal clothes hahahha). i am in rewriting mode at the mo so have a massive pile of books (can;t read when writing-writing) and am awestruck at The Shipping News, v excited for Middlemarch, happily falling asleep to Pullman, inspired by Greene's Twenty One Stories, just finsihed Blindness and am still thinking it thru and meandering thru SIx Suspects and ALice Walker's (rather lame) "essays". Let's not talk about writing, let's talk about books.

    who is reading what at the mo?

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  • ar
    ar
    March 18th, 2009 @12:37 #
     
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    I am reading Lovely Beyond Any Singing, and re-reading Of Love And Other Demons and When The Emperor Was Divine. Only now Dubious Delights has wedged its way in and is distracting me delightfully.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 18th, 2009 @12:55 #
     
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    Yay, yay, someone is reading my much-loved and neglected little landscape book -- isn't it a charmer (I am allowed to say this becos it's an anthology). And I have to confess that in my own little parallel universe I am Supreme Ruler. But in the universe next door, which is even nicer, I am the body servant of my two gorgeous cats.

    @ Kathryn, I remember you flinging yourself enthusiastically at my bookshelves. If you'd been a man, I would have fallen in love on the spot. Didn't Finuala Dowling once write: "Oh Lord, send us men with library cards"?

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  • Maire
    Maire
    March 19th, 2009 @01:29 #
     
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    At school I used to ask to be excused and head off and find a quiet spot and read. I was also voted the naughtiest girl in the class in Std 4, which is when my classroom absences were most frequent ... who wants to listen to old nuns rabbiting on when there's a world of wonders in your suitcase, just waiting to be opened up? I'm reading two books at the moment - In a Different Time by Peter Harris - the inside story of the Delmas Four and Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali (I preferred Brick Lane). I don't get into trouble for clandestine page turning any more. Life can be so dull.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    March 19th, 2009 @01:32 #
     
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    PS I really enjoyed your post ar - I followed much the same sort of recipe and now have two pretty well cooked readers, filled with the right sort of ingredients from The Man whose Mother was a Pirate to Discworld and Christopher Paolini's latest.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    March 19th, 2009 @10:22 #
     
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    ar - your recipe post was fantastic. There are only a few things my daughter could do to disappointment me - become a Hannah Montana fan / drug addict / non-reader. I think we're well on our way, although she's currently sticking to easily digested reads (ie. board books cos she's at the stage of shoving everything in her mouth. Hey, at least she's chewing on ideas).

    Which reminds me that I still owe Alex my little hands. This weekend, I promise.

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  • ar
    ar
    March 25th, 2009 @16:41 #
     
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    I hope Mr Eaton doesn’t mind how comfy we are in his living room, incubating readers, putting our feet up and getting chip-crumbs on the carpet. I wonder whether he’s finished reading Income Tax Tables yet, and whether it was gripping, and what he’ll read next?

    Maire - you made a little batch of Discworld readers? How delicious!
    Lauren, that’s pretty much the extent of my potential disappointment list too. All nutrients being equal your infant could probably do worse than board books. Like baby-rusks or the financial times.
    Helen, there’s treasure in the hills of your “little landscape book”. I’m having a lot of fun and nostalgia. Sodade, even.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 25th, 2009 @19:13 #
     
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    Mr Eaton is a generous and tolerant man. As long as we share the chips, we'll be welcome. Hey Rustum, have we added "sodade" to the BookSA vocab list yet?

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