BooksDecember 4, 2019

Lloyd Jones: Bit by bit, New Zealand book culture is being dismantled


The reading and writing ecosystem in NZ is broken – and I blame myself and other writers of my generation who have not fought for its patch, writes Lloyd Jones.

I was in Christchurch last week when a friend said excitedly, “I have to take you to the new city library. It is magnificent.”

Now that I have seen Tūranga, I agree. It is magnificent to look at and walk around in. It has open air terraces, a terrific café on the ground floor.

We took the lift up to the fourth floor to look at the wonderful sound recording studio and the sewing room – who would have thought? Well, why not. And we spent a few minutes admiring the 3D printer until it began to feel a bit silly. About now it occurred to me to ask after the books. Where were they?

Oh, the books.

Specifically, fiction.

We made our approach from the direction of the sewing room and the 3D printer. And there they were – herded into an area barely more generous than the space on the ground-floor allocated to teenagers and video games.

After a quick tour I returned to the librarian to ask: where are the New Zealand books?

Oh, she explained. They are there – marked specifically “NZ”, the way birds are banded for future sightings. There were more on the second floor, she said.

On the second floor the New Zealand books had turned into shy fauna barely surviving on retractable shelves that open and close like a bivalve. The New Zealand books live in perpetual darkness until someone like me comes along to work the wheel and retract the shelves and throw light on to the titles. And there they were – Bill Manhire, represented by one or two titles. A book by Vincent O’Sullivan. A book by Fleur Adcock. Did I catch a glimpse of CK Stead? Consider the 40 to 50 year output of those writers mentioned.

Virtually no one from my generation was represented.

A child wandering into the doors of Tūranga would need to leave the trail and work hard to find anything by a New Zealand writer. Such a child living in Christchurch might even wonder if New Zealand writers existed.

Readers will be aware that Wellington’s own magnificent city library – one that is not shy or ashamed to display books or to accept its responsibility as a custodian of written literature – has closed for the usual Wellington reason. It is an earthquake risk. Which in Wellington is akin to saying that life is a risk.

Yesterday morning I read in the Dominion Post that Mayor Andy Foster believes it is time to reconsider what a library may be. Why, he said, a library might even have a 3D printer!

Victoria University’s professor of library information and management studies, Anne Goulding , was whistled up to support this idea. She declared libraries were moving away from being storage places for books and a “transactional experience”. Libraries, she argued, were about “building relationships in the community”.

Really? There are dozens of organisations, endless sports clubs and social and cultural clubs that do exactly that – reach out to create a cohesiveness in our society.

A library is where people go to read. A library is where they may borrow a book. A library is one of the most honourable and civic institutions that a community can accommodate and offer to its young. It is not about cohesiveness. It is about the opposite in fact. It is where a self may prosper.

In a library the most important relationship is between one pair of eyes and words on the page. It is where the experience of another may be absorbed and made one’s own. A magical transaction. Almost as good as a 3D printer!

It is not a place for video games. Video games do not need a library. Books need a library. Readers need a library. Young people need a library in a “bricks and mortar” sense to tell them that books and reading matter. If they are to develop a mind that is imaginative, they will need to read. They will need parents and/or teachers to tell them that. Unfortunately, few teachers understand literature. Even if they recognise a book when they see one, they cannot confidently identify literature’s purpose.

Well, I know I am pissing in the wind. Shouting from the parapet as walls below crumble. There are any number of metaphors available to declare the reading and writing ecosystem in NZ is broken. It is not beyond repair, but it is broken.

How the hell have we gotten to this point?

I blame myself and other writers of my generation who have not fought for its patch. We have stood idly by as the school syllabus has shunted literature into the back room of yesteryear. We have shrugged at the loss of review pages from the major newspapers.

And now the reallocated purpose for libraries is all bad news for those of us who are writers. It is bad news for New Zealand publishers. It is bad news for the generations just being born and who believe their parents have carefully prepared and nurtured the environment for them to prosper.

On the same day Mayor Foster aired his thoughts on what a library might be, I am driving through the city when I hear a familiar voice speaking to Jesse Mulligan. It is Steve Braunias in obituary mode singing the praises of New Zealand Review of Books, which has just published its last issue after Creative New Zealand turned down its funding application.

NZ Books offered intelligent response to a book. It generated conversation. It helped us to believe that where we lived mattered, that minds were at work in a public space

At times NZ Books was too determinedly democratic. Reviews of All Black biographies, for example. A bit unnecessary especially when the space was already heavily contested. I would have preferred NZ Books to have been unapologetically elitist – to strut rather than cower.

It is not so long ago that I nearly fell off the stepladder I was standing on to paint a ceiling. I blame Jesse Mulligan. Jesse had invited a book reviewer on to his show to explain to listeners what a book review is. What a book review is, its purpose. On national radio!

And now the National Library is rolling out a national campaign to turn New Zealanders into readers. Good luck with that noble objective. What chances do they have of succeeding when all the support they might have counted on is reaching for its hat to pass out the door.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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