Connie Buchanan grew up gobbling down stories, even the questionable stuff that arrived via 90s Hamilton garage sales.
When I was a kid I read The Reader’s Digest. When I think about those small book-shaped magazines now, I think of the most powerful insult I’ve ever heard – “I’m going to eat you and shit you out.”
I ate those magazines. And then shat out information, from age 11 or 12, on all the big preoccupations of 90s American news.
Crack Babies. Gorbachev. The Litigious American Public. The Psychology of Evil. Clinton’s Yo-Yo Diplomacy. Cocaine, The Devil Within.
The subtitle “a family magazine”, plus its propensity to run marriage-saving advice, gave the whole thing a vague feeling of Christian propaganda. This was sufficient to ward off the censorship of my then-evangelical parents, despite the articles being sourced and condensed from The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Conde Nast and other Satan-adjacent sources.
With a Reader’s Digest in hand, I was free to read.
Best of all was the Drama in Real Life section. True stories of survival, long buried in my mind, now claw to the surface. The one about a skier trapped under avalanche snow for days who chewed through a brace of birds, killed in the same avalanche, that had frozen near her face. From memory, she ate up four whole ones, interspersed with intense sessions of toe-flexing and filling her bladder with snow for the warmth of later release, before managing to orient herself within the ice tomb. Once she figured out which way was up, she screwed her ski pole millimetre by millimetre in the right direction and finally cracked through to signify life.
Somewhere in there is a metaphor for what reading is to kids. Reading is the ski pole that pokes you out of your frozen hole? Reading is the raw avian organs that keep you alive? Reading is the flexing of your extremities so they don’t turn black and fall off? Reading is the disciplined treat wee that warms you from the inside?
Reading – even when you’re reading a montage of moral panic and sensational survival stories – is all of these things.
But reading fiction, well, that’s the rescue team which comes striding over the snow crust in tennis-racquet shoes to pull you, gasping and heaving, into light and air and the world.
Crack babies, it turns out, weren’t really a thing. The vexatiously litigious American public wasn’t really a thing. The definitive example of the psychology of evil, the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, wasn’t really a thing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was far better off trying to learn truths about the world from the fiction that appeared in the house.
These were books that were never bought new. They just appeared, thick and wavy from someone else’s bath. You read what arrived, not what you’d chosen. Often they rose up from the bottom of garage sale boxes, released from service as packing material for a crapped out Sony hi-fi system, to be welcomed in a house with heaps of kids and no TV.
There must be a Venn diagram of people in 1990s Hamilton who held both garage sales and pro-Israel opinions, because I went through a heavy period of Jewish fiction. Among the holy land novels, concentration camp horror, and uplifting tales of kibbutz life, I recall The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig. I Am David, by Anne Holm. Exodus, by Leon Uris.
Like my shamefully belated understanding of New Zealand history, it took me until well after high school to understand that there were people with prior and legitimate claim to the promised land when the chosen ones rocked up.
But reading all that Jewish fiction didn’t turn me into either a Zionist or an anti-Semite. It’s hard to construct political polemic when the raw material is an inner emotional arc drawn over 100 pages. By the time you’ve finished explaining that it was really sad when Yael couldn’t fetch the water anymore, any audience has long since gone off to practice their Janet Jackson moves.
Reading as a kid, then, was to learn to do something purely internal. The end game was thinking about something to yourself and deciding how you feel about it. Not performing a verbal crotch grab for others.
Reading fiction in this way allowed me to climb inside history and to gradually understand it as an accretion of subtleties, biases, mysteries and motivations that elude lists of date and fact.
And wow did I climb in deep during my Underground Railroad period. Circa 1992 the magic porridge pot of garage sales somehow produced a whole lot of slavery fiction. I read so much of it that I decided – oh god – to write my own story about a long journey featuring – oh god – clanking metal chains, clouds of dust and cornbread, during which – oh my god – I wrote in the first-person voice of an African American slave – oh my goddity god – in order to convey the emotional realities of preparing for live auction to the highest bidding master.
My frontal lobe is clenched in a cringe so hard that I can’t remember if there was an accent deployed in this story. But, as a repeat reader at that age of Alex Haley’s Roots, I suspecks that there was.
I can neutralise the mortification of this memory by reminding myself that trying to replicate what I’d read was a way of showing how closely I had listened to those books.
To give a kid a book is to give them a piece of music. A way to hear what the world might be like for others. A way to begin to “know” something, rather than knowing “about” it, as Marilynne Robinson said so gracefully in reference to her book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It’s the type of knowing that stitches neurons together. You put the book down and you move through life differently without having said anything out loud.
In such a shouty and performative world for our kids, reading fiction is a form of moral silence.
All of which is to say that when my mate and author Sonya Wilson set about getting brand new books into the hands of Kiwi kids who might otherwise miss out at Christmas, it felt like she was doing something profound. She’s in her third year of this wonderful work, and while the pile of books grows each year, so does the need.
If you can, please support her. And please, dear lord, choose an author from Aotearoa, so the stories that humiliate our 11-year-old writers in 30 years’ time are at least written in an accent from here.
The Kiwi Christmas Books donation scheme runs until December 13th. You can see a full list of recipient charities and information on how to donate a book, at kiwichristmasbooks.org.nz