On Purpose: A Talk Delivered at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2015
by Eleanor Catton
Reading is a creative act: it cannot happen automatically, and it cannot happen passively. Whether you are reading an academic argument or a poem, whether you are reading a dream or an appetite or tracks in the snow, you are using your imagination in the sense that you are seeing something more than what is there. You see not just the words, but what they mean; not just the people, but who they are; not just the shapes, but what the shapes suggest, and how, and why.
It is impossible to read something when you are bored—in fact, this is a contradiction in terms, for boredom implies an imaginative lack, and reading is both the exercise of the imagination, and the enlargement of it. You can watch television when you are distracted or drunk or half-asleep—the picture will go on without you—but if you are any of these things with a book in your hand then you cannot really be said to be reading. On screen, sight and sound, which are external to the body, are separated from the bodily senses of smell, taste, and touch; on the page, all the senses must be invoked equally. So too with the immaterial dimensions: our imaginations, after all, are not only sensory, but emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and even moral.
Any piece of writing is therefore as intimately shaped by the reader’s imagination, their memories, their intelligence, their disposition and their state of mind, as by the writer’s. The greater the bond between reader and writer, the more imaginative and personal the individual reading will be. I don’t believe that there is anything that more excites a love affair, for example, than a period of correspondence; and I don’t believe that there are any greater love affairs than those conducted between two people who don’t exist. The scope of what we can each experience is limited by the dull facts of biography, anatomy, and historical accident; but the scope of what we can each imagine is not limited at all.
I’ve called this talk ‘On purpose’ in part because I want to emphasise that reading is inherently creative, human, and mature—something that can only happen wilfully and imaginatively, that cannot be delegated or automated or mass-produced. There is no other way to read except on purpose. But I also want to meditate on ‘purpose’ itself, and to ask—what is our purpose when we read? What is it in service of, and does it matter?
In the later chapters of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy writes a letter to Elizabeth Bennet in which he narrates the full account of his dealings with Mr. Wickham. The situation he describes is one of some delicacy, and as a matter of courtesy to Elizabeth, his reader, he does not dwell on the less wholesome details. ‘You may imagine,’ he writes, ‘what I felt, and how I acted’. It occurs to me that a modern-day character would phrase that line quite differently. Today we tend to talk not about what we feel and how we act, but about how we feel and what we do when we act upon our feelings.
There is a real difference between asking someone ‘How did you act?’ and asking them ‘What did you do?’ The former question is the more demanding, requiring not only the ability to describe one’s behaviour, but the ability to interpret it. To be able to say what you did, you need only information; but to be able to say how you acted you need some degree of understanding—the ability to read yourself, and to connect that reading, thoughtfully, with other things that you have read. Of course, all interpretations are subjective and conditional; they may be contested, even disproved, in the face of a more sophisticated reading. Elizabeth Bennet, imagining how Mr. Darcy acted when he confronted Mr. Wickham, might judge his course of action to be foolish, brutish, patronising, self-satisfied, proud, or prejudiced—charges he could not defend against except by providing a counter reading of his own.
The difference between the questions ‘How do you feel?’ and ‘What do you feel?’ is more subtle, in part because each of us has private and total access to our own emotions, which become visible to others only when they are actively expressed. What we feel may be more or less common, but how each of us feels is absolutely individual and absolutely private, unable to be replicated or shared. Nobody else can experience the world just as I experience it, with my intellect, with my emotional sensibility, with my memories, with my imagination, and in my skin. The language we use today tends to emphasise this detachment, rather than minimise it: we say ‘You have no idea what it was like’, and ‘You can’t imagine how I felt just then’, and if we are feeling petulant, ‘You don’t know’.
Because nobody can contest or disprove our own readings of our inner lives, we are all free to exaggerate our feelings, downplay them, deny them, wilfully misread them, or invent them altogether. If our reading of our own emotions is doubted, we can always take refuge in outrage and offense; each of us, after all, is the sole and absolute authority on the subject of ourselves. Being asked ‘How do you feel?’ is thus more comforting than being asked ‘What do you feel?’ It suggests intimacy and focus, as though the questioner really wants to understand us, to feel as we feel, to be as we are. It flatters our individuality, treating our inner life as something rare, complex, important, and refined.
Mr. Darcy could well have described to Lizzie how he felt upon confronting Mr. Wickham; she could hardly have contested whatever he claimed. But to do so would have been to press his advantage; to advertise and even compliment the depth and quality of his feeling, which Lizzie must take on trust; what’s more, it would have put Lizzie in an awkward position by raising the expectation of a sympathetic response. We in the twenty-first century have been long anaesthetized to advertising culture, such that self-promotion and expressions of self-pity are no longer seen as coercive or demeaning. But Darcy’s code of ethics does not permit him to indulge the desire, common to all of us, to be seen in the best possible light; nor will he solicit Lizzie’s sympathy. Instead, he treats her as a reader, inviting her to exercise her own intelligence, her own imagination, her own maturity, and her own goodwill. ‘You may imagine,’ he writes, ‘what I felt, and how I acted.’ And she can, because she is beginning to love him, which is to say that she is beginning to read him generously and read him well.
Values, according to the screenwriter Robert McKee, are the lifeblood of storytelling. He writes that all stories are shaped ‘around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth—the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism—a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you express it to an ever-more-sceptical audience?’ He concludes: ‘This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story.’
When I was an undergraduate, I can’t tell you how many times people asked me why I chose to study English—not out of stupidity or malice, but out of genuine concern that I was pursuing a course of study that did not have a clear economic benefit. Likewise, I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have been interrupted while reading—again, not at all stupidly or maliciously, but on the casual assumption that what I am doing is not important; that because reading does not make money, it can be only a form of amusement, an idle way to pass the time.
Our society places enormous value on economic success, on competition, profit, and efficiency, on consumption and the proof of it: the encroachment of market thinking and market values into every aspect of our lives encourages us to think at every turn not about how we are acting, but about how we feel. Even when we defend non-market-driven activities, such as reading, we tend to use arguments of utility—I read to educate myself; I read because it relaxes me, because I enjoy it—rather than arguments of virtue: the claim, say, that one has a moral duty to read; or that intelligence is something that is acquired through reading; or that someone who loves a book reads it better than someone who does not. To call reading a vocation sounds, today, almost ludicrously quaint.
We have greater access to reading material than ever before, greater volumes of reading material than ever before, and higher degrees of literacy worldwide; but these are matters of quantity, not of quality, triumphs of information rather than of understanding. William Morris dismissed the so-called labour-saving machines of his day, saying that ‘what they really do is to reduce the ranks of the skilled labourer to the unskilled’. The outsourcing of mental energy does nothing to exercise and develop our imaginations; in fact, the more our phones and computers can do, the less creative we need to be in simply living; the less we need to read, not only written language but our environment, our social systems, each other, and ourselves.
This is to my mind a very dangerous and troubling thing. People who do not read are not only far more homogeneous than people who do; they are far more susceptible to manipulation. If you can read the language of advertising, for example, you will understand how you are being targeted by a particular advertisement, and why; you understand which of your desires and insecurities are being tapped, and why; you understand the reasons behind the composition and the placement and the strategy and so on. When you read something, you become in a sense its equal, able to see it for what it is, and to see yourself for what you are, before it. You grow in understanding but also in maturity. In being read, the advertisement loses its power to manipulate you; in this way the reader is an adult where the consumer will always be a child.
We often talk about the imagination as something childish, even naïve—but this, too, is a symptom of market thinking, which cannot contend with anything truly human. Purpose, in a market context, doesn’t really matter: your success or failure will be measured in the same terms whether you achieve it by chance or by hard work, by theft or by inheritance. But in the real world, which is to say the world of the imagination, purpose is everything: how you read, how well you read, is shaped by what you bring to it, which shapes you, in turn. Perhaps, in the end, the purpose of reading is simply to love reading, and to want to read on.