Ben Brown is the first reading ambassador Te Awhi Rito. The role focuses on advocacy and education around the importance of literature, reading and books for well-being more generally.
OPINION: Last year, 85 out of every 100 adult New Zealanders (18+) read or started reading at least one book. Almost 3.4 million of us, if you want to put a number on that.
In the adult population, that’s about 120,000 fewer than in 2017. Statistics strongly suggest that these new non-readers are men.
Between 2017 and the recent release of Read NZ Te Pou Muramura National Reading Survey, the number of Kiwi guys reading books increased from 84% to 79%. During this period, the number of women under the long white cloud who read remained at 91%.
Men who don’t read outnumber women who don’t, and the ranks are growing by about 30,000 unsuspecting men a year. (Non-reading refers only to books.)
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Plus, a lot of these guys aren’t going to lose a moment’s sleep over it. I know men my age who happily claim the apparent distinction of never having read a “real” book.
“Too busy for that kind of carry-on, man,” they tell me. They have built useful lives through hard work, vigor and energy, and they are determined to continue to do so.
These men consider that their skills are quite adequate and sufficient for their needs. Their own unique “book” resides within as a personal storehouse of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and real-world experience. Their story serves them well enough, they know exactly how it’s going and how it’s going to end, which is the imperative. If life strays from this path, however, they risk getting lost in a maze of misunderstanding.
Given the trend, there is a slowly growing number of boys, who are not quite men, who have never read an “actual” book in all of their teenage years. And they may never do it, because no one has shown them how.
They have a different concern – they are obviously deprived, distinguishing themselves by a disadvantage. “Not enough of anything” guarantees limited opportunities and reduced expectations. Often the stories they are told don’t end well. They are already lost in a maze, though many of them don’t know it yet.
These young men are more often Maori. Their ancestors were navigators; in a sense these rangatahi are also navigators but no one told them the history of the stars, how to read the sea or feel the wind. They do not know the original tales, the pūrakau which gives them place and meaning. The narrative offered to them did not begin with a whakapapa but rather with an imposition of the perceptions that others had of them.
When the story you’re in casts you as either the villain or the madman, you’re more likely to find a way to play one or the other. That’s what browsers do. They find a way.
And therein lies the hope. If you found a way into the wrong story, you may find your way back. All you need is the right story or storyteller to guide you.
In all walks of life, regardless of tribe, color, or temperament, these almost-men who do not read see little or no instruction in reading or writing at home; school only offers a myriad of ways to feel stupid. Sometimes books are even banned; a kid i knew in my youth, judge mahi, was threatened with bash ”if i find you with a fucking book in this house! ”
Maybe I never would have met this kid if his dad had said to me, “Hey son, I want to read you a story…”
The stories framed the human condition with memory, action and imagery from the cave to the cosmos aboard imaginary machines. Billionaires are now working to build these machines, inspired by stories. History unlocks human potential by revealing what we are capable of.
When the human experience is artfully presented in a story, our imaginations fire and our memory files it away for future reference. Memory builds a mind. Stories build the human imagination, and that’s a good thing too. Without the ability to remember and imagine, humans would have been dead ducks long before they were sapiens.
The more we grow, the more our perceptions are refined, the more our stories take on meaning and the more our imagination translates. This positive feedback loop leads infallibly to human language with all possible elaborations of meaning that can be expressed and in doing so giving us the super power of infinite application.
Our superpower is not just language (powerful as it is). Our superpower is the application of the imagination to the process of history, through which we are able to envision whatever our mind is able to conjure up. Brains only get better by exposing themselves to the uncharted territory of a story they haven’t yet processed.
To you guys who have never read a ”real” book in your life, heal your brain, discover our super power and read at least one book that will reveal something you have never known. If you have a son, read it too.