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Reflection on BWF – do books make us think?

It was wonderful to listen to Lucy Treloar, Charlotte Wood and Jane Rawson discuss whether books can change a reader at the Bendigo Writers Festival.

First, they chatted about the idea that reading can make people more empathetic.

Wood believed that while it might make a change while the person was reading, that change was not necesserily long-lasting.

Treloar pondered whether it was the case that more empathetic people chose to read, so that skewed any research linking reading with empathy.

I agree with Treloar that it is possible that people who are interested in people are more likely to read, and more likely to be empathetic.

However, I’m not sure that I could completely agree with Wood on this one. I find it hard to believe that reading about someone’s intimate and personal experience wouldn’t make someone more empathetic, at least to that particular plight.

Surely, all the different viewpoints that books expose readers to make them more inclined to empathise with more diverse viewpoints? This might not necessarily make someone kinder or change their actions, but I would have thought it would help them understand a different experience in life to their own.

Personally, there are so many books that have changed my thinking, or at least interrogate my prejudices, from Kylie Reid’s Such a Fun Age to Melissa Lukashenko’s Too Much Lip, and Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

Interestingly, later the authors on the panel discussed the books they felt had changed them.

Rawson nominated Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as being a book that made her want to be a better person. I have never read Gilead – I’ve tried a couple of times without finishing it. Perhaps I’ll give it another try …

Wood said Elisabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton books changed her, making her more accepting of difference. This made me think of another of Strout’s characters – Olive Kitteridge. I feel that the Olive books also have the effect of making the reader see the complexity in the main character, and by extension, those around them. Olive is snappy and grumpy and sometimes downright mean, but she is also kind and humane and compassionate.

It can be easy to compartmentalise people as being good or bad, but this more nuanced interpretation of personality reflected in Olive is a useful reminder of people’s many contradictions.

One other intersting idea I took from the session was Wood’s explanation of how she prevented herself from preaching to her readers: she considered them more intelligent then she was. By writing from this standpoint, she was not tempted to convince or harangue.

As a former journalist and a science communicator in my day job, my approach has often been to ‘keep it simple, stupid’, write for a sixth-grader and dumb down complex ideas. However, I like the assumption that the reader is smart and ready and willing to think.

This must be how Wood, when writing about misogyny and women’s anger in her famous novel, The Natural Way of Things, created an engaging novel rather than a lecture in the form of a book.

Writing this just after Australia’s federal election, I wish that politicians would take a similar approach, assuming the intelligence of the public rather than evading questions or reciting well-worn and lazy lines.

Thank you Bendigo Writers Festival for a thought-provoking session about whether books are capable of changing minds. What do you think?

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