Sunday, 30 August 2015

You Don’t Have to Be Yourself for Your Whole Life: Eleanor Catton on Reading

By Joshua Barnes

The horoeka—a tree native to the bushland of New Zealand—begins life thin and spiny, its leaves sharp, branches angled downwards to deter predators. Once it reaches maturity however, it transforms: its trunk thickens, its leaves widen and it reaches to the sky.

For the horoeka, there is no resemblance between the young and the old. In botany, this process is called heteroblasty—halfway through its life, the tree changes form completely, growing into something new and strange, confident and different.

For Eleanor Catton, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, the horoeka is the perfect metaphor for reading. Reading, she says, is ‘inherently creative, human and mature…it cannot be automated, delegated or mass-produced’. Reading affords the passage between different minds, places and times. With this in mind, Catton has established the Horoeka/Lancewood Reading Grant, which offers a $2000 stipend to allow New Zealand writers time to read. Established with the winnings from her New Zealand Post Book Award, the prize aims to affirm and preserve the absolute sovereignty of reading. 

Speaking to an attentive crowd at Federation Square, Catton admits that she has ‘literally just stepped off a fifteen hour flight from Los Angeles’, and pauses for more coffee before she begins. Jetlag notwithstanding, Catton’s speech, entitled ‘On Purpose’, is eloquent, articulating the personal and cultural significance of reading in lucid epigrammatic style: ‘It is impossible to read when bored,’ she says. ‘If you are distracted with a book in your hand you cannot really be said to be reading.’ Like Michel de Montaigne, Catton sees reading as ‘that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well’.

Utility is the enemy of literature, Catton argues. The greatest threat to literary culture is a poverty of reading culture, and the urge to express value in purely economic terms leaves reading—and readers—vulnerable. ‘I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been interrupted while reading,’ Catton says, and worries that, these days, ‘to call reading a vocation sounds ludicrously quaint’. The Horoeka Reading Grant thus constitutes an attempt to ensure that the important work of the reader may go on uninterrupted.

Catton, who received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches Creative Writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology, does not think that the Creative Writing workshop can provide a true literary education. In her opinion—and your correspondent agrees—it is far more beneficial and instructive for writers to read deeply those books that made them want to write in the first place. ‘The worst thing to read as a writer is work by other people trying to be writers,’ Catton suggests, though she recognises that this opinion may be controversial, given the intense popularity of tertiary Creative Writing programs. What are the best books to learn from? Children’s books, according to Catton, for she considers the important lessons of story to be most conspicuous in books written for younger readers. 

At the end of the session, an audience member—in compliance with the central trope of audiences at writers’ festivals—asked Catton what she’s writing at the moment. ‘You seem to glorify reading a bit too much,’ the questioner said, suggesting that Catton’s admiration of reading indicated that she had writer’s block. Catton responded with good humour—her love of reading is, of course, sincere, and she also happens to be doing some research for a new project, though it lacks any clear definition. She’s interested in political theory and the economic madness of contemporary neoliberalism, such that her next book of fiction may be, as moderator Sian Prior put it, ‘a devastating critique of economic rationalism,’ but Catton is happy to remain unsure. As she put it at the end of her address, reading is by nature autotelic, a perfect end in itself: ‘the purpose of reading is to love reading and to want to read on’.

Edited by April Newton


  1. Lovely piece, Joshua. I'm proud to call reading my vocation now. Sorry I missed the session :(

  2. Eloquent account of a great event.

  3. Eloquent account of an inspiring event.


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