An accomplished academic, a public intellectual and a brilliant writer, Lydia Wevers was also an insatiable reader. Here Lloyd Jones introduces excerpts from her essay on reading, which he commissioned for his Four Winds Press imprint.
The New Zealand writing and reading community lost a committed stalwart with the death of Lydia Wevers on September 4, 2021.
Lydia was an exceptional student. Following her graduation from Victoria University, she won a scholarship to St Anne’s College, Oxford. On her return, she took up a lectureship with Victoria University. Alongside her own writing Lydia balanced many academic and public life responsibilities. She was a significant contributor to the Turnbull Library, Wellington readers and writers committee, Aratoi Gallery, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa. Until her retirement, she had been the director of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies.
Above all, Lydia was a committed reader. She had been so from a young age. I recall her excitement at discovering the reading records of a large working farm in the Wairarapa. She fancied she had found a window into the hearts and minds of those farm hands at Brancepeth. Her research was turned into Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World.
In 2004, I commissioned Lydia to write a long essay “on reading” which the Four Winds Press published as part of its essay series. Here are five short extracts.
– Lloyd Jones
I suffer from an illness, an illness which has no cure, no limit and no end. It’s compulsive, expensive, consuming and addictive, it fills my house and my life and my time — I refer of course to reading. Susan Sontag has famously argued that illness should not be used as a metaphor and some might say that to think of reading as addiction is, and can only be, metaphorical. But even as a child I was aware, when I woke before dawn and had to hold my eyelids open so I could see the next page of Anne of Green Gables or The Magic Faraway Tree, that I had a condition.
Like most addicted readers I come from a family in which reading was a substantial part of daily life and deeply connected to pleasure. Friday night visits to the Masterton Public Library were part of family ritual. First came the fish and chip order to my father, whose office, above the State cinema at the north end of Queen Street, was opposite the fish and chip shop. Then we went to the library where Miss Watson presided to choose our maximum of five books, and home by way of McKenzies, a vanished chain store, where we were allowed to choose one variety each from the sweet counter. These were pooled in the sweet jar when we got home and dished out by Mum after meals.
There were several kinds of licence permitted on Fridays, but one of the best was not having to eat at the table. Steaming newspaper parcels in hand, we were allowed to go anywhere in the house with our new library books. It gave me and my brothers a reading map of our house — one of my favourite reading places was under the coat rack at the top of the stairs. My father was a modernist architect and the house he built for us when we came to New Zealand from Holland in the early 50s was concrete and glass, and two storeyed, which made us stand out from the other stucco bungalows at the top of Lansdowne hill. From my shuffle space under the coat rack, warm folds of coat creating a semi-private gloom, I could see out the floor-length windows to the road and the front garden and down the stairs, maintaining a watchful presence on any news in the house or street while also enclosed in my book-space. Solitude in a public space is still what I like for reading — in cafes or airports, or the library reading room, separate but not alone.
So why was I aware that my reading behaviour was a bit over the top? After all, reading is a necessary accomplishment for children. Parents agonise about it; the university library has a great deal of stack space devoted to studies of the psychology of reading, literacy, dyslexia, reading methods, understanding reading; there are special education reading methodologies; major New Zealand publishing success has developed around school readers; debate rages over phonics or whole-word instruction. I can’t remember learning to read. The time before I could read is no-time, like being a child in Holland and having snowy winters. It must have happened but there is no savour, no smell, no life to that time. I found reading an effortless skill, unlike my youngest brother who hit primary school just as the teaching of reading moved from phonic methods to what was then known as whole-word teaching, and whose slow progress propelled our outspoken mother into innumerable visits to the classroom teacher and principal. I learned by “sounding out”, but what was at first an interesting new activity very quickly became compulsive behaviour with its own pathology.
I vividly remember my first “real” book. I think I was six (so not really a fast start by Montaigne’s or Macaulay’s standards — both read in Latin by the age of four), as I was too young to go to the public library in the evening, so Mum went and chose our books for us. I had made a request for a “real” book, by which I meant hardcover with chapters, not a picture book. Waking at first light, I barrelled into my parents’ room and collected The Little Red Airplane (author now forgotten) from the pile at the side of the bed. Ten minutes later I experienced what was the first of many experiences of reader-crash. Unable to accept that the book was finished like that, over, demolished, absorbed, ended, I threw a kicking shouting tantrum, which increased in rage and volume when my patient mother explained that the library was closed on Saturdays.
I still don’t like the mild blank depression that slides in when there is nothing left to do but close the book. And it can’t be resolved simply by opening another one, though chain-reading, like chain-smoking, can supply the illusion of comfort. Transition back to the workaday world, with its wearying obligations and routines, is always dusty and smeared after the bright obsessing otherworld the reader inhabits. And at the heart of this experience is the mystery of the book. Robert Escarpit is a French book historian who wrote in 1966 that no one has yet been able to provide a complete definition of what a book is, because “when we hold it in our hands all we hold is the paper: the book is elsewhere”. How beautifully and simply true.
When my mother was 23 she went on a cycling tour of Holland with a group of girlfriends. My mother was a middle-class English girl, badly educated at a school for the daughters of gentlemen, very clever, an avid reader, almost but not quite an autodidact — she taught herself two languages from children’s readers. I prefer to think of her as a reader who could fill the world of her intelligence by access to the library. While she was in Holland she stayed with a family of Jewish textile manufacturers whose eldest son fell instantly in love with her — a coup de foudre. He invited himself to London for Christmas, and as my mother drove to Victoria station to meet him off the boat-train from the Hook of Holland she was filled with apprehension about what she knew he had come for: to ask her to marry him. Would her family like him? Would he be too strange and Jewish for their staid, middle-England Watford taste? Would she like him? After all, she hadn’t seen him for five months. But, she said, he got off the train and she immediately knew it would be all right, and it was — her family loved him, she accepted his proposal, all was happiness. The year was 1938, By the time they married, my mother had had to cross a Channel shadowed by the fear of U-boats, and Dick (that was his un-Jewish name) was in the army, Their wedding photo shows him in a beautiful braided Dutch army uniform with a kepi and my mother in what she always called a coat-and-skirt, A little over three years later he was taken from his office at lunchtime and never seen again. The family house was confiscated, and My mother and her one-year-old half-Jewish son had to move to the next-door neighbours, who had German soldiers billeted on them. After the war my mother found he had died at Mauthausen concentration camp. My mother never really talked about these events, and what we know about them now is pieced together from a lot of different accounts, but she did tell me that what kept her sane in this time of great terror and grief was reading and re-reading Jane Austen.
The life-saving and sanity-saving book which takes you away from bombs and murder into the cool English countryside in search of a suitable match for an elegant bachelor may also be a book in prospect, a book in limbo. Fernand Braudel wrote his masterpiece The Mediterranean, a paradigm-shifting book which changed the conception of historical time, as a German prisoner of war (he is said to have written it in his head), and Primo Levi’s merciless self-examination of being a camp survivor in If This Is A Man depends on a remarkable capacity to recall every detail of that experience. Levi is one of the great witnesses of the 20th century. Unblinking in the face of extremity, his report on experience opens out every nuance, every twist and shift through the spectrum of what we are capable of — as prisoner, victim, guard, kapo, collaborator, friend and persecutor, but also as reader and writer, as sentient conscious person living in the world, buying and reading his book. The Periodic Table contains a chapter, “Carbon”, in which Levi breaches the time lag between the writer and the reader, and leaps over the boundary separating the absent, invisible author-God behind the text from the reader, who is pulled into and around a world the writer has ordered and shaped and inhabits. Levi leaps over this boundary, which we all accept and almost never think about, reading conventions being what they are, and focuses attention suddenly on a point of connection, like a pin joining separate leaves of time, when his hand makes a mark on the page, and our eyes, in an act of sublime attentiveness, look through the moment of our reading to the moment of his writing “this dot, here, this one”. Reading Primo Levi we become witness to the act of his witnessing. Reading makes us collaborators and survivors.
Mark Twain once said that a classic is something “that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read”. I can never decide whether the feeling of a head, dandruff on the brain, that I get alter reading too many unmemorable, mediocre fictions of contemporary life is because they really are making my synapses shut down, or because I am deeply indoctrinated with the idea that what I always ought to be reading is a hook with something hard to say, or a “classic” of its time. The list of great books I haven’t read is embarrassing, but why am I embarrassed by it? When I was a student I had a part-time job in Smith’s bookshop in Mercer Street, a Dickensian hive of beautifully ordered, abundant, pre-loved books, many of which you could only reach by ladder. New acquisitions were stacked in heaps in the mezzanine floor until the proprietor, the very well-read Dick Reynolds, got around to shelving them. Dick was a large, genial and unbusinesslike man with a corporation and salty views on life (he once said to me ruefully that marriage wasn’t just four naked feet in a bed), who sat reading and smoking behind a raised desk in the middle of the shop. He had a lunch room upstairs in the building next door where he sometimes took you for cups of tea or something stronger — he always had the something stronger. One day we were talking about James Joyce. I had recently read Ulysses very fast, virtually non-stop over a day and a night, and I was boasting, feeling intellectual and sophisticated. Dick asked me if I’d read Finnegan’s Wake. I’d heard of it, I felt I ought to have read it, so I lied and said yes. Dick was very suspicious: “How long did it take you?” I was alerted by this question to the fact that it must be very long and hard, and I had just read Ulysses so I knew it wouldn’t be a doddle. “About two weeks,” I said airily. Dick gave me a look and dropped the subject. Some weeks later I looked it up in the university library. The shame of my pathetic braggadocio lives with me still.
Recently I’ve been doing an intensive manual study of a 19th century station library, lent to farmhands at Brancepeth in the Wairarapa. It is very easy to classify the books into heavy, medium or low reading use simply by the way they show wear and tear, Dirt spirals up the margin, edges are torn or burnt, spills run down the pages or splodge the covers, insects and grass seeds and pressed flowers and hairs are caught in the gutters. The life of the reader, browsing, racing to the end and reading over dinner, getting bored and abandoning the book after the first two chapters, leaving it outside or in the sun, is written all over them. They show the life of the body, and the body’s consumption, sometimes very literally. In the 50s and 60s the Masterton Public Library’s children’s section must have had a great many books with mysteriously large numbers of missing page corners. If I particularly liked a book I felt compelled to physically consume a piece of it, just a neatly torn-off corner here and there, especially if the paper stock was thick and fibrous and matt. More than once I was taken to the library to apologise for a book left outside or dropped in the bath, and made to offer to pay for it from my precariously slim pocket money, which had a great many drains on it. I could never see how I would be able to raise the money but was never forced to try, as the librarian, Miss Watson, always let me off with a warning. I knew the library intimately and still know where certain favourites were placed on the shelves, though the library has moved to another building and its old quarters are now council offices. It was one of a few seminal locations for me as a child (another was the swimming pool), and perhaps illustrated that being allowed to have your head in the local library can and does lead to stronger stuff in the long run, though like Montaigne I could say (if I was a man) that “if I be a man of some reading, yet I am a man of no remembering”, which is the price you pay.
In Anthony Powell’s long sequence of novels about interwar and post-war Britain, A Dance to the Music of Time, the 10th novel is called Books Do Furnish A Room. It’s a title I’ve always loved, both for its social ironies (someone is lurking there who is buying leatherbound volumes by the metre) and because it’s true. There are books in almost every room of our house, and the only reason I don’t have them in the loo is because I have my Dutch grandmother’s genes and it seems a little unhygienic. My favourite room has floor-to-ceiling books on two walls, and strays pile up on the windowsills and in stacks by the most comfortable chair. But the necessary accompaniment of a well-stocked house is a well-stocked mind. In his autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounts a meeting with a friend, Gustavo Ibarra Merlano, who he says brought him the rigour that his “improvised and scattered ideas” were in need of. He lent Gabriel Marquez a copy of the complete works of Sophocles and told him he’d never become a very good writer if he had no knowledge of the Greek classics. I don’t want to sound here as if I think recreational reading should be abandoned in the interests of serious literature, or that entertainment is wrong, or that it is more morally desirable to read the classics, because I’m as big a fan of Inspector Wallander and his gruesome Swedish murders as the next crime nut, and think there is something special to South Americans when it comes to high and serious intellectualism, but I do think that to read really great books, and even not so great but good books, brings a kind of content and peace with the world that is hard to find in any other way.
When I am reading something that fully engages me, makes me think and feel and hear and see, where the sound of the sentence and its beautiful placement on the page and the complex rivers of what it is saying come to one place in my brain, I experience a feeling of completion, as if the book has expressed me, as if reading has achieved, for a potent instant, what I am meant to be.