In March I bought a bike. I had never owned my own bike. I shared one with my sisters but we were only allowed to ride in our (large) backyard as we lived on a busy street. As I got older I would occasionally rent a bike when I was on holidays and the last time I rode a bike had been on the island of Poros in Greece in 1996. So finally buying a bike at the age of 43 was a huge step for me.
I am a novice. I wobble along, I have only just mastered going downhill without hopping off the bike and walking it along, I use my bell and I cannot bring myself to ride on the roads yet. I am the person who gingerly rides past people, ringing my bell and calling out “I’m still on my L-plates”. I am loving riding along Botany Bay from Kyeemah to Taren’s Point. One day, my husband and I decided to buy some cakes and we detoured and visited my cousin Peter and his wife Lysette for a lovely afternoon in Carss Park. My favourite route to ride has also given me my most upsetting ride as I had an asthma attack while riding along the Bay Run at Iron Cove Bay. I adore Iron Cove Bay. I also enjoy riding along Cooks River. Growing up in Marrickville, Cooks River was always this dirty, polluted horrible waterway. Despite my home being well beyond the 100 year flood mark, we could, on a breezy day, smell the stench wafting up from the river. In 1985, I met an elderly gentleman who told me about courting his young girlfriend on a rowboat on the river and how it broke his heart to drive past this murky mess. So when I ride past the now cleaner river, after many years of councils investing time and money to clean it up, and I see kids playing, families picnicking, kayakers on the river, I think of that gentleman and imagine him rowing his sweetheart in a rowboat and how much happier he would be if he could see the river now.
Before I had my bike, I walked all these routes, I certainly did not walk as far as I am currently riding so I am seeing much more of Sydney now. When I was younger, I took part in competitive sports, from volleyball and squash teams and cross-country running. I had coaches encourage me, suggest new techniques to me and even if I didn’t make a team I was given training in refereeing and encouraged to continue participating by the people with positions of authority. But I am no longer interested in competition or speed or anything tiring and not fun. Having a bicycle with daisies and a pink seat certainly lets others know that competitive riding is not my aim.
To date, no-one has laughed at me for this. To date, no-one has called me a reluctant rider and to date, no-one in Lycra riding past me at a top speed has told me that my riding is lesser to theirs and that I should be aiming to be a competitor. I take huge pleasure from my riding and I think it is a pleasure on par, though completely different and perhaps immeasurable, to a prize winning cyclist. To date, I have not had a single cycle shop owner scoff at me for my choice of bike or for that matter have these shop owners not stocked a range of bikes because they felt that only competition cyclists should enter their premises. If anything, my bike is mass produced. It was not bespoke. A friend of mine works for a hard core specialist cycling shop pointed me in the direction of the better pleasure riding companies – no disdain, no eye rolling – just keeping me informed. To date, I have not read of any sports journalist dismissing the pleasure rider. To date, councils have put a lot of money into developing bike tracks that are exactly that – for pleasure, for the cruisie-let-the-wind-flow-past-you-smell-the-flowers-and-the-sea-and-have-fun-doing-it rider along with the commuter rider and the child rider and the lycra Speedy Gonzalez rider.
And the same goes for just about any other sport or activity people play. Whether you are playing in the lowest division of football for your local club – no one laughs at you, points at you, tells you that you are doing it wrong and that you should be playing at a state or national level (as an aside – I realise there are still some vestiges of the nutcase over zealous abusive parent/coach etc but note they are now the outlier). If you are booking the tennis courts at your local tennis courts – no-one treats you with derision for not hitting the ball with the skill of Leighton Hewitt. If you take part in the City to Surf you get a medal regardless of the place you take. Whether you ran in the elite under 60 minute athletes or whether you strolled along with friends or whether you were in the middle pack and your only aim was to not be beaten by the guy in the gorilla suit. In the past week my family alone has taken part in karate classes, dancing, running, fussball, football and cycling. None of us are gold medal material. All of us had fun. And none of us were the recipients of derision from elite sports people, their coaches, sports commentators, PE teachers etc and none of them have been quoted in the newspapers as considering suburban sports players to be mediocre, useless, poorly led, indiscriminate, wastrels on the field and track. No one has tapped me on the should to say “How dare you not have progressed beyond Beginner’s Zumba after 3 years” or “How have you been going to Yoga for 5 years and still be in the intermediate class” and no one has stopped me on my cycle and inferred that I need to don lycra and up my speed. Because that would just make me quit. I would find no enjoyment in it at all. If anything, coaches, commentators, top rated players, every sports person I have known have always voiced how great it is when they see people playing grass roots sports and most importantly, that they love seeing people enjoying the game and how sad it is that some elite sportspeople can lose the pleasure of playing in the sport they use to love.
Νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ
Now I want to move on to reading for what are we all but “Νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ” or “sound of mind and sound of body”. If can exercise my body for half and hour then I can exercise my mind in a similar way.
When I was a teen, my favourite after school pass time was spending hours listening to my favourite bands and reading the lyrics sheets to their albums. Beatles, Springsteen, my Footloose soundtrack, John Cougar Mellencamp, Big Audio Dynamite and the list can go on. I also spent hours and hours reading TigerBeat because I needed to read any celebrity gossip about the Brat Pack and The Outsiders cast and Days of Our Lives. I lived for my magazines. But oh the judgement on the faces of the serious readers I would encounter. They would pucker up their mouths and politely suggest I read something “better”. By better I assumed they meant a book. People seem to think that twenty, thirty years later life has changed and these attitudes have ceased to exist. But that is untrue. I’ve seen many people criticise young girls who love to read One Direction lyrics and fanfiction. Yet when Niall and Louis from 1D decided to act out some of the tamer fanfiction they sent more teens scrambling to read than the Newberry, Carnegie and CBC medal winners has managed to do collectively in the last year.
It is these teens and many other fandom readers who tend to say to me “Oh, I’m not a reader”. This astounds me. They ARE readers.
This is a deep seated problem in our community that I hear regularly. When university graduates don’t perceive themselves as readers, when karaoke singers don’t perceive themselves as readers. I’ve met teens who have attained over 90 in their TER (the Year 12 high school leaving exam for non-Australian readers) who don’t perceive themselves as readers. I have met history and economics and science and religious book, news and blog readers who all say “No, no. I am not a reader” because they have do not identify their reading as relevant or important. Or professionals who only read for their work to say they are not readers is incorrect. They are readers. They are the structured, Lycra readers who read to achieve a professional goal (ot all reading needs to be fun). It is a particularly terrifying world when drivers of automobiles don’t perceive themselves as readers. And if you have a populace who does not identify themselves as readers despite it being their day to day activity, then you struggle to maintain relevancy as a reading industry – and as an industry we have failed our reading passion. If we were truly passionate about the written word then we would be embracing it in all its manifestations.
Sadly, many within the reading community, particularly those who are in positions of authority such as literary critics, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers and books shop owners do not function the same way as their sports counterparts. Rather than seeing reading as an “anything goes” pleasurable activity they couch their terms dripping with sarcasm, disdain and judgement at worst, or with patronising terms such as “reluctant” reader or “trashy fun”. Take for example Kristin Meekhof last month in her critique of Woman on Top by Deborah Schwartz saying “Readers may snicker about the title assuming this is a poorly written shallow romance novel”. Unlike Meekhof, I didn’t think trashy romance when I read this title but I thought of Nancy Friday’s Women on Top and women being empowered through sharing their sexual fantasies and the parallels between the two texts would have been a much more interesting article to read. Instead Meekhof elevates herself and Schwartz by taking a dig at the reading choices of many of Huffpo’s readers.
Then there is Ross and Kathy Petras and their book Wretched Writing. Now, I have no issue with people highlighting poorly written prose, tongue in cheek as it might be. Fine. Go for it. We all have our likes and dislikes and I have laughed at incomprehensible sentences too. But those sentences appear in all writing styles and genres. Each genre and style has representations of beautiful writing through to crappy writing. So it is of no surprise that I do take issue with the statement “We started off with romance novels. Then there’s science fiction and fantasy, where you get to be excessively creative because you’re writing about something that isn’t real,”. For we all know how real literary fiction is, right? Implicit in the statement “But we both love words. You can’t do something like this if you don’t love good writing, too” is that the genres they investigated certainly can’t contain ‘good writing’. And if you enjoy the books and genres that the Petras’s have highlighted as the starting point in seeking out “wretched writing” then you do not know what “good writing” is.
Meekhof and Petras are just two examples of what, at times, can seem a constant stream of newspaper articles disdainful of the reading interests of invested readers.
Burton Rascoe in his book The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure says that “The phrases “in good taste” and “in bad taste” are used so frequently as undefined and indefinite qualifiers by people who, ignorant of general and specific ideas, use empty catch phrases as bludgeons, that it is probably a safe rule to set down any person who uses the two phrases without any tase whatever, good or bad – an intellectual neuter, an emotional moron, a characterless individual of the pusher type who seeks to identify himself with the people he conceives to be his betters by using catch phrases which he thinks will give him the color and character of a superior being or, at the very least, put stupid people in awe of him.”
This idea that reading can only be aspirational, one in which romance, and science fiction, children’s series and fanfiction are on the bottom rung progressing slowly to the top rung where we read the award winners, the literary awards with a big gold sticker, the books some people think will make them look and sound smart when they mention them in learned company and upon finishing these gold stickered books they can then proceed to look down on readers who have not read them. This is the system by which some of those who work in the reading industry have done a disservice to the broader readers. I have seen this elevation of self committed by librarians, some blatantly and others purely by omission of materials from collections and promotional materials. I’ve seen it done by book shop owners who laugh at the suggestion of romance fiction in their shops and saying that their customers don’t read “those” books. It is much more likely that their customers don’t tell them that they are reading “those” books. By reading professionals speaking down to people, patronising them, elevating themselves as better than the everyday person, many in our community don’t want to identify themselves as readers. As long as people in authority speak with either disdain or in a patronising way then advancing literacy programs and reading initiatives will struggle to take hold because who wants to take part in an activity associated with a bunch of judgmental twats.
Not everyone who exercises wants to win an Olympic medal. I am on my bicycle and my ultimate aim is pleasure. Not to eventually progress to some speedy cycle. Not to lose weight. Not to enter some extreme BMX stunt competition to show off my Funky Chicken. I’m cycling because it is fun and so are a whole lot of other people out exercising for fun. And reading needs to take on this paradigm. Not everyone who reads aspires to reading literary prize winners. There are many of us readers who balk at the thought of reading a prize winner. Not because it is too hard (though Virginia Woolf is probably the literary world’s Tuck No Hander) but because it holds no appeal. As readers we are a broad lot. We vary in our interests as much as people who take part in sports and exercise. For some readers, literary fiction is their deep love, and this is wonderful. But it does not make them better, or worse, than the 1D fangirl reader, Whovian reader, romance reader, car manual reader or blog reader.