Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2020

The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, by Tegan Bennett Daylight

Tegan Bennett Daylight is a guest of the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival in a session with Charlotte Wood called ‘In Which Two Friends Discuss Reading’ and so I bought her latest book, The Details, on Love, Death and Reading.  And although this collection of essays includes other topics, you won’t be surprised to learn that the ones about reading interested me most.

The tone of these two essays, ‘The Difficulty is the Point’ and ‘Inventing the Teenager’ couldn’t be more different to Debra Adelaide’s uplifting book about reading, The Innocent Reader. Bennett’s writing in these essays is characterised by melancholy and a sense of loss.  But the loss she conveys in the essays about reading is not like the loss she evokes when writing about the deaths of her mother and her friend the author Georgia Blain.  The loss of a reading culture in contemporary life is deeply felt, and personal too, but there is also a palpable sense of frustration about the diminishing importance of reading in our society.  Because unlike the inevitability of death, the loss of reading is a choice. Being made, perhaps, by people who do not know what they are losing, and who are not aware of how that choice impacts on others.  Because a shared reading culture is something that has connected us ever since the emergence of universal literacy.

This is not something I need to explain to readers of this blog.  All of us who read and write LitBlogs love — and need — that sense of connection.  We are all well-read, and we need to talk about the books we’ve read.  We love it when a blogger reviews a book we’ve also read, often even more so when it’s a book we read from long ago.   Whether it’s Bill reviewing Cranford at The Australian Legend or Karen reviewing Staying On at Booker Talk or Simon at Tredynas Days reviewing Old Filth or Sue at Whispering Gums reviewing Persuasion, what we love is the experience of ‘being’ with someone who has read the same book.  Or, if we haven’t read it, wanting to, and sharing connections about other books brought to mind by the blogger’s review.  That book talk brings back memories, ideas, opinions and emotions that are part of who we are as individuals.  All of us will understand the intense frustration and dismay that Tegan Bennett Daylight expresses when she writes about teaching EngLit to wannabe primary school teachers…

At the beginning of the course they are asked to write reflections on their own personal reading:

What have these students been reading before they come to our class?  Some — a very few, and almost always women — have read nineteenth-century classics: the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens.  Some — a very few, and almost always men — have read twentieth-century science fiction (Asimov and his ilk) and some of the Beats and their offspring: Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski.

The next and much larger group have read The Hunger Games, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, some or all of the Harry Potter series, and a lot of autobiographies, either by sportsmen (the men) or by women who have been held in dungeons for years by rapists (the women).

The final group, about the same size as the group of Hunger Games readers, read their local newspaper, their Facebook pages and those of their friends, their newsfeed, and the occasional copy of a women’s or men’s magazine.  None, unless they have been made to by the high school English teacher, has read anything by an Australian author, unless it was Matthew Reilly. (‘The Difficulty is the Point, p.60)

Making allowances for a little hyperbole in the matter of the female taste for sordid biographies, Daylight is expressing something really dispiriting.  These young people are going to be teaching reading, yet, with the exception of the first small group, they do little or none of it themselves.  And they are going to be teaching Australian children, when they have no experience of Australian voices in literature.  These students struggled with reading a ten-page extract because they had no experience with anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book.  I think these students would struggle with the picture books I used to read to my younger students because the texts are sparse and need imagination to interpret them.  It’s Daylight’s job to show them how critical engagement with literature enables critical engagement with living.  But she has to be satisfied with less than that…

This is what my students have learned: how to read more than two hundred words of text at a time.  How to write something about the way they feel  And finally — and maybe this is the only thing — how to notice that a text is doing something. Not to simply look passively at a block of writing, to slump, bored, in front of it and hope that it goes away.  How to notice that it is up to something. Perhaps, in the future, to read a little differently. (ibid, p.68)

When I compare this representation of her classes to the excitement and enthusiasm of the English classes I attended at university, it makes me feel depressed. Of course we can’t all read everything, and the idea of the canon has moved on to expand into a much more interesting and diverse variety of texts and authors, but that makes connecting with other readers all the more absorbing.  Anyone who reads this blog knows how I have been influenced to expand my horizons by other bloggers: just last night, reading The Burning by Indian author Megha Majumdar, I came across a character who is a hijra.  And I knew what this was straight away because I had read The Parcel by Anosh Irani which I would not have read if I had not become interested in South Asian literature through Vishy the Knight.  Knowing what I do about how a hijra makes a living means I can make a more mature judgement about the representation of a hijra in The Burning. Sue from Whispering Gums would know about this too because she’s also read The Parcel.  And though both of us were restrained in our reviews so that not all the horror of the story is revealed, she and I both know more than we have expressed online.  Each of us knew what the other was thinking when we discussed it without being explicit.  We are connected by this book.  Daylight would love to have us in her classes!

No wonder she feels melancholy about the future of reading…

…it used to be that when I stood in front of a class I felt an excited kinship, and a sense of my enormous luck — to be there, right then, amongst young people, as their reading and writing took shape.  I still feel lucky, because it’s a privilege to be next to young people at any time in their lives.  But sometimes, when I read their writing, I want to send up a howl of desolation.  Their flimsy words scud across an empty landscape, a landscape unpopulated by all the books that came before.  There’s no weight, no texture, there’s no echo, there’s no depth. In the late 90s I used to chuckle to myself when I read the work of yet another young man whose style had been colonised by Cormac McCarthy or Tim Winton or Charles Bukowski.  There’s nothing to chuckle at any more because my students haven’t read any of these writers.  There’s no one to be colonised by. (‘Inventing the Teenager’, p.166)

It used to be an anomaly to discover a non-reader in a creative writing group, now it’s the norm.

The anomaly [now] is the student who has read books despite the fact that they have a phone to soothe them and provide continuous company, despite the fact that they don’t need to leave the house to see a movie, despite the fact that there is simply so much else to do.  I don’t despair anymore.  I just notice it. (ibid, p154)

Well, it makes me despair.  Because these non-readers won’t just be taking over the LitFests I love so much, they’ll be taking over the world…

Author: Tegan Bennett Daylight
Title: The Details, on Love, Death and Reading
Cover design: Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2020
ISBN: 9781760855253, pbk., 179 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $26.99

Available at Fishpond: Details and your favourite Indie bookshop.


Responses

  1. I’d be really worried by an Eng Lit student who willingly read Matthew Reilly, he is diabolical! But yes I am worried by grandchildren being taught what it is to be Australian by people who haven’t read Australian Literature, English by people with no grammar and Maths by people who can barely add. But that seems to be where we’re at.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a serious problem. When our age group was at school we were taught, mostly, by highly intelligent women who were steered into teaching, often with studentships that paid for their tertiary education. But when Whitlam abolished university fees, highly intelligent women went into law and medicine and other high-paying professions. The consequence, since teachers have never been well paid, was that the entry requirements for teaching fell, especially for primary teaching. There are of course exceptions — young teachers with a passion for teaching who choose the career rather than one with better pay and conditions — but inquiries into the problem confirm that many studying teaching have only compensatory passes or very low scores and can’t get into any other course. This is an appalling contrast to the requirements for teaching in Asia and Europe.
      It’s also true that personal qualities such as kindness and compassion are vital attributes for teachers, but in my role as a teacher-mentor of student teachers I have been dismayed by how dim some of them were. Enthusiasm is not enough. I remember having to intervene to stop my grade threes laughing at one who spelled paper with three ‘p’s.
      It matters when teachers just aren’t capable of teaching gifted children, or are so shallow that they don’t know anything about the countries refugee children come from because that’s not in their social media feed. Or can’t teach maths or science because they don’t understand it themselves…
      The solution lies in improving the status of teaching, along with the pay and conditions under which they work. But that costs money…

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is so well said Lisa. Our son had a high university score – enough for Law at the ANU – but he wasn’t interested. He went off and worked as an assistant teacher of English in Japan (that is, he worked with professional teachers in Japanese schools, not in language schools) and discovered his vocation. I was thrilled, because I have always been committed to education, but I did have friends look askance, and he himself thought seriously about choosing such a low status – and often suss for men – profession, primary school teaching. My heart broke for him, but he stuck with what he wanted to do and for the most part he loves it. The negatives have nothing to do with the practice of teaching!

        Like

        • Yes, I did well at HSC too and everyone expected that I would change my preferences and do law. It was serious pressure but I was born to be a teacher!
          There are not so many professions where you can make such a big difference to an individual’s life:)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the great links Lisa and for the beautiful comments about reading, and about the connections made through reading. It reminded me how much I lighten up inside when I find someone who wants to talk about reading – not about the story, but about the experience (autocorrect changed this to opulence the first time I wrote this and I nearly left it) of reading, about what it meant or how it affected me or us, if they’ve read it too.

    One of the joys I have is talking to my son about what he reads to his class, what they like, what works. He LOVES reading to his classes.

    Like

    • I bet they love him too. I can’t imagine your children not being readers… but I also remember the intense dismay of a great reader I know whose son turned out not to be a reader. That would be so awful!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It does happen! I’ve seen it too. Many one back though I think?

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  3. Dear Lisa

    Thank you for expressing so eloquently what many of us have observed about the lack of reading depth and insight in the younger generations. It fills me with despair at times that far too many people choose to fritter away their so precious and so short a time on this world with the pursuit of the trivial and shallow, largely via the ubiquitous Smartphone (was ever a device so ironically named!) How can one understand what intelligent writers today are saying if the attempt to read them is largely in a vacuum, with no direct knowledge of the literary, social and political heritage that informed that writer’s perspective.

    I know that this is dangerously close to a rant from an old fart, but I do worry about the number of young, and not so young, people I meet who don’t read anything more intelligent or demanding than Instagram and Facebook. I even know some fellow book collectors who are not readers. What is the world coming to!

    Please keep reaffirming the value and relevance of the written word and our shared heritage with your insightful posts and ability to link together like minded people.

    Yours in words
    Chris

    Like

    • Rant away, Chris, you are among friends here!

      Like

  4. A moving account of your own love of reading, and sharing your thoughts with other readers. I am forever in awe of the number of books you and other bloggers, in particular Whispering Gums, read and share with such insight and fluency. Tegan’s experience of the non-reading students who will presumably become teachers fills me with dismay – first for Tegan, then for the students, then for the children.

    Like

    • In our current circumstances, I found this essay triggering thoughts about the protective nature of reading. There’s been a lot of talk about mental illness and the loneliness of lockdown contributing to depression, and I’ve been wondering if the book community and the connections it supports is perhaps playing a role in protecting people against depression, by assuaging loneliness, giving people interesting things to think about and offering opportunities to chat with others. I hope so, it breaks my heart to think of people all alone and frightened.

      Like

  5. Hi Lisa, I understand your concerns. My three grandsons read, but I do question what they read at times. I just read this little story about Kafka.
    At 40, Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who never married and had no children, walked through the park in Berlin when he met a girl who was crying because she had lost her favourite doll. She and Kafka searched for the doll unsuccessfully. Kafka told her to meet him there the next day and they would come back to look for her. The next day, when they had not yet found the doll, Kafka gave the girl a letter “written” by the doll saying “please don’t cry. I took a trip to see the world. I will write to you about my adventures.” Thus began a story which continued until the end of Kafka’s life. During their meetings, Kafka read the letters of the doll carefully written with adventures and conversations that the girl found adorable. Finally, Kafka brought back the doll (he bought one) that had returned to Berlin. “It doesn’t look like my doll at all,” said the girl. Kafka handed her another letter in which the doll wrote: “my travels have changed me.” the little girl hugged the new doll and brought her happy home. A year later Kafka died. Many years later, the now-adult girl found a letter inside the doll. In the tiny letter signed by Kafka it was written: “Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will return in another way.”

    So hopefully reading will return to good Australian literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL Meg, because we chatted about this offline a week ago, it looks as if I haven’t acknowledged it!

      Like

  6. I once asked a former A level student of mine, who was by then an undergrad at university studying English, which of his A level set texts he’d liked best. He named one, and when I asked why that one, he replied, ‘It was the shortest’.

    Like

    • Oh woe!
      You crossed him off your Christmas card list of course…

      Like

  7. It’s an awful reality to comprehend for the future. I credit books with saving my life giving me hope and courage to go on when life was quite difficult. So grateful for those wonderful adults who encouraged me in early life; some of them teachers and neighbours too who recognised my curious nature. I am forever grateful and like so many others here my heart races when I meet another reader. Your commentary and suggestions keep my spirits up Lisa especially at this time. So a big thanks for all that generosity.

    Like

    • It’s definitely a thing, isn’t it, the way the heart leaps with joy when someone says, carefully gauging the response, something about a book!

      Like

  8. This is saddening but not surprising. My brother left secondary school History teaching disillusioned at the low pay, lack of status and respect he received (from students, parents and the general public) after four degrees and years as a teacher.
    It’s wonderful when you find someone that has loved a book as much as you have isn’t it – I’ve had such animated, enthusiastic, thrilled discussions with friends who happen to have read and loved the same book as me – and it’s a real joy to recommend an author to someone and have them enjoy their books too. I was encouraged to read from very young – my Christmas and birthday gifts were mostly books – which I was always overjoyed to receive! Both my brothers are the same – it begins at home it truly does. My parents were determined their children would all be keen readers. (They also encouraged classical music and I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection).

    Like

    • Oh yes, I have very fond memories of the Christmas and birthday books, and I still have some of them on their own special shelf beside me here in my library. They mean such a lot because they represent real care in choosing them. Other gifts were nice, but I’d usually been asked what I wanted. The books were chosen for me by someone who took the time and trouble to do find just the right book.
      The Offspring still does this for me at Christmas:)

      Like

      • What I was referring to in my comment was that a love of reading needs to be instilled early in life, and the home environment is vital here. It’s also well evidenced that an appreciation of music assists in speech and language aquisition and hence reading.

        I mentioned the books I was given as gifts to demonstrate – for example, reading Alan Garner’s The Wierdstone of Brisingamen got me interested in Welsh myths and legends and I went on to read The Mabinogion as a result of Garner’s novel.

        Like

        • I *loved* Brisingamen! I think I got that one for my 13th birthday.
          I think that in general you are right about love of reading beginning in the home but I have in my teaching career encountered disadvantaged children who found it somewhere else, in a school or municipal library or in the classroom.

          Like

          • I should add that music teaching is being seriously neglected in primary schools now as well.

            Like

            • Indeed it is. We must be the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t fund primary schools to teach music.

              Like

  9. Really interesting post, Lisa, and I am of course in agreement. It dismays me how people don’t read, but I don’t think this is always a new thing; I recall going to a work colleague’s house in the mid 1980s prior to a work do, and there wasn’t a single book in the house – not one… But I do agree that it’s shocking that people intending to teach don’t read. At the school in which I work we hammer on and on about the importance of reading; not just for the pleasure and joy, but for how it expands your mind. Our culture will only decline if people stop reading…

    Like

    • You right, I’ve always known people with no books in the house, sometimes because they couldn’t afford them, but also because they weren’t interested. I think the difference now is that within certain cohorts, other reading (e.g. social media) has been substituted for the reading of books.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] – Charlotte Wood (The Weekend, see my review) and Tegan Bennett Daylight (The Details, see my review) – sit down to discuss how they find comfort, refuge and power in both reading books and writing […]

    Like

  11. I waited until I finished reviewing this book before reading your review – not surprisingly, we focused on different aspects of the book. I think we (you, me, Bennett-Daylight, and readers of book blogs) are in heated agreement about the state of reading and the younger generation. I despair at my own children’s lack of stamina when it comes to reading, but there are two things that keep my hope burning –

    1. I never studied literature (not even English Lit at high school). I would have loved to, but my course didn’t allow for it – I was a science student, much to the horror of my English teacher. But I still loved literature, and it sustained me. And it still does. I’m sure there are others like me – on a different educational path, that will find their way to literature (albeit much later than I did – I was always an avid reader).

    2. I grew up with a mother who was constantly reading. I read from a young age. My brother NEVER read until he was in his mid twenties, and then he started and didn’t stop. He’s a teacher now (it was a career change) and he has patience for the ‘non-readers’ because he’s been there. He tells them to persist, because one day they’ll find ‘their book’.

    Anyway, I’ve had quite a few conversations with friends about this aspect of The Details, and I’ll be pressing it on my brother.

    Like

    • I hope they do, Kate.
      It seems so sad when young people are always going on about mental health and lack of connectedness (or we think they are because that’s what’s in social media) when what they would find within the pages of a book is people they can relate to. Or not, and enjoy the difference. When I read stories to my students I had four questions:
      1. Was there anything you liked about the book? Was there anything you disliked?
      2. Would you be friends with any of the characters?
      3. Was there anything that puzzled you?
      4. Did you notice any patterns?
      I used to love the kids who said, well, I’m not a princess, but I don’t know why she didn’t just #insert act of rebellion against being locked up in a tower &c. Whether they’d experienced it themselves or not, these were kids who understood over-protectiveness, possessiveness and unreasonable behaviour by others. And they liked finding being able to talk about finding that in books… and to see that others in the class understood it too… when else do you get to do that at school?

      Like


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