Beyond ConTact

I used to think contacting books – the application of a sticky sheet of protective plastic – was a punishment parents put themselves through, but now I realise it’s the school. It’s the system. And I’ve just faced it for the first time. I’ve just had my first wrestle with the giant sticky multi-limbed heartless beast that is contacting schoolbooks and, since it’s possible others didn’t make it out the other side, I’m reporting in.

We were told at the parent information night on Thursday that it’s to make sure labels on the front of the book stay stuck on properly. Heard that yourself, have you? Apparently that’s often how it starts, but don’t be fooled. If it’s the case, why not just stick them on properly in the first place? Why slap a label on in some dodgy way to start with, then require someone else to do something infinitely more complicated to keep it there? And then judge them for their handiwork? Because be in no doubt about it – there’s judging going on. In the classroom next to my son’s, the teacher has already sent some contacting back to parents to be re-done. Which, having just escaped the ContTact chamber, seems to me like sending an omelette back and asking for it to be returned as two eggs.

‘What is this contacting books?’ the parent next to me said, recently arrived from a distant land. ‘How do you? Is this reading she is talking about? Contacting books?’ In the movies when a platoon arrives on a planet inhabited by unseen but deadly aliens, there’s always one guy you know will be taken first. Phew. In our room, I wasn’t that guy.

So, I spent a day or so in denial of the gravity of my mission, and then I did what any first-time contacter would do. I turned to Facebook for help.

Fifty-six comments later, I determined I had to go in. The advice was mixed. Of course it was. ‘Rebel,’ some said. ‘Get those slip-on covers … Just don’t do it … Life is already too plasticky.’ (‘Yes, yes it is,’ I heard the nagging voice of doubt say in reply. ‘More plastic in the sea than fish soon, I read that …’)

Rebel? Well, sure, but I’d be pitching my son into the middle of my revolution, and he didn’t choose that. Make him the one hold-out in a class where every other child is parented by ConTact-adept suck-ups? It took me straight back those three years of Indonesian at school, when everyone else had bought exactly the right Indonesian-English dictionary in time, but I’d got to the shop just after the last one sold, to be told the next would come on a slow boat who knows when. I ended up with a brightly coloured Malaysian-English dictionary instead, since it was apparently ‘near enough’. Near enough? There’s no near enough. For three years I confused my untuks and my untoks and I still can’t eat satay without breaking out in a sweat.

So, I took the best practical advice given to me, attempted to compile a summary and went to cross-check it by googling other sources (as also advised). There I realised my first mistake. Years ago, I’d gone and got myself a Y chromosome. Every site on how to contact seems to have ‘mum’ somewhere in its URL. Contacting apparently isn’t a job for men at all! Perhaps, in some other bi-gendered parent teams, men stand by with nets and flamethrowers and stuff (warrior-like, semi-tough but useless) as the ladies boldly face the beast. But not at our place, apparently.

I settled for the illustrated contacting process at ‘mouthsofmums.com.au’. If these challenged mums were gamely pushing on and contacting books with their mouths, I should be brave enough to step up and try with two hands.

So, I’ve done it. I’m back, somewhat scarred by the experience, and here’s what I’ve learned:

• I’m an ace ConTact cutter, but a dud ConTact applier.

• It’s the application that’s the real skill. Therein lies to path to ConTact glory and/or unmitigated disaster.

• First ConTact is crucial. If the line of the book’s spine doesn’t land correctly, you’re already sunk. The book will end up like an ultra-sticky spitball, your child will probably be failed out of grade one, have to repeat, lose contact with his/her peers, be fire-setting and harming small animals by eight and, of course, be lost to a life of crime soon enough. Other than that, first ConTact isn’t crucial at all.

• Book covers are actually animate, sentient and wilful, and sometimes flap when they want to, bellyflopping onto that ConTact sheet with all the precision of a drunk with his eyes shut tripping over the edge of a swimming pool. Again, this is a trivial matter (see outcome above). No pressure.

• ConTact has its own limbs, and reaches out for the parts of the book cover you least want it to.

• ConTact is almost certainly an aerobe, seeking to trap as much oxygen as it can between itself and the book cover.

So, how did I fare? I’m guessing if you’re having to use your chin or your knee to hold something down, you’re doing it wrongly. Unless ConTact was designed to be applied using at least three limbs and no one on the interwebs told me.

I can’t say I did well, but the job is done. And it would have been even worse had it not been for Facebook guidance and the Mouth Mums. Yes, I used the ruler to smooth, as directed, but it turned out to be only a partial remedy for flaws on the scale of which I was capable. Only once did I contact the ruler to the book. Only twice did I clip off a tiny bit of book corner when trimming, but we won’t mention that again. They’re less likely to hurt people now, anyway. Untrimmed corners can be very pokey, right?

I have to admit that parts of some covers ended up like tactile maps of river deltas, but that’s just how it is. Put me down for a D in contacting, teacher, but there ain’t no re-do.

Ah, ConTact. We’ll only do this eleven more times and then it’ll be over between us.

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Facebook: Are We Turning It Into FOMObook?

Recently, it seemed as if half the people I knew were skiing in Japan, while I was close to home, in various parts of southeast Queensland. I had little to complain about – it was a mix of short beach holidays and staying at other people’s houses while our floors were re-surfaced, and every place had airconditioning, a pool, etc, etc. I had it good. But was everyone else having it better?

That’s what Facebook told me. Even without meaning to. Even when not one of the people involved meant to.

The lives of my peers were defined by awesome wintry vistas, mad grinning on chairlifts, more mad grinning apres ski. And my life appeared not to be.

Not so long ago on Facebook I saw a post by a writer I admire (talented writer, smart person), who said she’d just had Facebook envy when glancing over her partner’s shoulder at a screen. He was checking someone out on Facebook. The cover photo was autumn in Paris (leaves all bronze and copper, the Tour d’Eiffel beyond those roofs that could only be Paris), the profile pic maybe had the profilee on a different occasion rugged up and standing in snow about to throw a snowball, the pic at the top of the status updates was similarly envy-inducing. So, this writer responded appropriately, with envy. And then realised it was her own Facebook page. She had been envying herself, in the way she had, she realised, become accustomed to envying the Facebook lives of others.

Because perhaps that’s what we do when we post pics on Facebook, without ever have the intention of doing anything but sharing. We go to Paris once, we throw one snowball, and suddenly our life, to the casual observer, is all Belle Epoque and crazy snow frolics and grinning. Even when we spent way more time that year doing laundry than we did in Paris. Even though we got only one good snowfall wherever it was, and by lunchtime it was all slushy and unskiable and some of it suspiciously yellow. Or the snow was great but the jetlag hammered us and we spent way too much and, yes, it was maybe even the holiday of a lifetime, but even then the pics don’t tell the whole story. Because they never do.

This week it was back to school photos. Amazing cute kids with beaming smiles and, actually the start back at school in our house this year went really well, but did it go that well? Did it go Facebook well? Our really good start back at school risked looking less than amazing and, well pretty average, maybe a bit below it, in fact.

Which made me appreciate Rebecca Sparrow’s Facebook back-to-school pic all the more. It was a lovely photo of two happy parents and their happy daughter. Could have been in a magazine. And the caption read ‘Our annual first-day-of-school-on-the-front-steps photo with Ava. Good luck to all the kids heading to school today. Treat each other with kindness and you can’t go wrong.’ It could have added to anyone’s ‘Oh, crap, our start back at school was only 80% amazing’ nagging doubts. It could have added to the groans of any family whose start had been 90% awful, as some surely were.

But then Bec came back and added something herself: ‘EDIT: this photo looks serene. Let me assure you that in the background it was FIGHT CLUB with Fin and Quincy … it’s on like Donkey Kong between those two’. I thanked her for that addition and she said ‘There is NO SERENITY IN MY HOUSE AT ANYTIME. Facebook is deceiving. Somehow that photo makes it look calm. It’s total false advertising. I live in a zoo.’ I’ve been to her house. It’s a great zoo and she is a zookeeper par excellence, but it’s a few years off having a clear shot at serene.

So, how many of us have ever scrolled through our Facebook feed and, without ever feeling something as unseemly as jealousy, come away feeling our own lives are a bit less shiny for the experience? Subliminally believing, without stopping to dismantle it with logic, that other people are having close to maximum fun close to all the time, and in way more exotic places than we happen to be?

Even if a ski trip is 30% travel, 20% bad weather, 20% arguments, 20% over-priced meals that didn’t live up to expectations, 8% getting up the mountain and only 2% getting down it, is that how the photos play out? No. And nor should it be.

But some of us are going to have to take some effort to tell ourselves, on a semi-regular basis, that the truth that we see on Facebook is usually a partial one. If we can accept that, maybe we can also live with the occasional Japan ski trip someone else has that actually is as 100% amazing as the photos suggest (everyone grinned, all the time, even the plane trips were maximum fun).

And maybe our own lives are, like those of other lucky people (people in safe places, with enough money and food coming in and only a rare jolt of tragedy), straightforward most of the time, but offering us an occasional glimpse across the Paris rooftops or a few days on the slopes with the snow crunching under our boots. Things worth sharing, which is why we share them, but not the whole story.

Alternatively, I’m pitching a new mood disorder to the American Psychiatric Association for DSM-5.1 (the next update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders), and it goes like this:

Facebook FOMO Dysphoric Disorder
Episodes of somewhat depressed mood following exposure to peers’ Facebook photos
Presence of two or more of the following:
– a nagging feeling, particularly following Facebook exposure, that the subject’s life might not involve as much ‘fun’ as the lives of others
– a persistent feeling of incomplete fulfillment, or that the subject is lacking the true satisfaction experienced by others
– recurring feelings that the subject should be in Paris more, or skiing
– episodic feelings that there is less family-wide grinning in the subject’s life than in the lives of others

Not that I’ve got that, of course, but I seem to have a pretty good idea of how it might work.

How about you? Ever been there? Or have you been having way too much fun in Hokkaido to think that way?

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On the Efficacy of Mess

It only took five years, but I recently worked out that my personal Facebook page didn’t have a cover photo. What could I put up there, I wondered, that might represent me fairly? Then I remembered this pic, taken at the end of a longish book tour:

shed in usual disarray

It’s not how my office looks all the time, but it is how it looked that day – no styling involved – and I have to admit that tidy’s not my thing. Tidy, in this room, happens about once every two years when the junk load gets too much for even me to bear, and I devote a solid day to (sort of) fixing it, digging down through strata of junk until I hit, say, the fully loaded 1993 Bart Simpson Pez dispenser (Pez all crystalline and fused together …) or the two $2 notes I’m holding for two friends in connection with a wager they made in 1986.

Okay, so there was one awkward time when our house was broken into and one of the police took a look in there and said, face all well-practised empathy emoji, ‘Yeah, I can see they really trashed the place.’ To which I had to say, ‘Actually, they didn’t get to this bit …’

I thought my new cover photo would pass unnoticed but, while one person asked if there had been any casualties, posting the pic also unearthed a tribe of writers just like me – some claiming to be even more messy – authors who have managed over the years to have published (collectively) hundreds of books, carve out careers and who, outside their shambolic writing environments, present as acceptably groomed and almost punctual people who manage to prepare for and deliver almost every event in their diaries.

So, how can this be, when my Dad can’t see an untidy workspace without coming over somewhat judgy? (Or maybe that’s just mine, every time he sees it …) He’s of the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ school, and he’s far from alone. My shed looks, to his kind, like an oversized dumpster into which I’ve dived, not like the sort of place from which anything worthwhile might emerge. And yet, thoughts happen there and come together and end up, through a series of sometimes surprisingly meticulous processes, as something as organised as a book.

His workplace remains neat, his pencils sharp and straight. I’m sure even his hard drive has barely a speck of clutter (he has occasionally used some awesome software he’s got to tidy mine, for which I’m grateful, and prepared to cop a previously negotiated amount of tutt-tutting). He cannot fathom how a work day might begin in a workplace like mine. But he is a management consultant and IT expert and I am a writer, and maybe it’s a simple as that. Perhaps we need to think in different ways.

Okay, I have to admit that some writers might actually be neat. I don’t understand those people, even though I like some of them a lot. There’s even a (closed) Facebook site where writers post pics of their workplaces. There are some kindred spirits of mine to be found there, as well as some who embrace tidiness and others who faked it for the few minutes they took the photo (those latter two groups are hard to tell apart, and I’m not sure either is to be entirely trusted …).

It turns out that there’s some evidence to support me using the information management model that I do. Ergonomist Mark Landsdale, now a professor at Leicester University, some years ago looked at the information management of ‘messy’ people. (See how I’m slapping quote marks around that now? Those people aren’t messy, it turns out – they have a system. I have a system.) I’m going to paraphrase him. Don’t be shocked if a hint of bias works its way in.

Filing, it turns out, is often arbitrary and forgettable. One piece of paper might have five different files into which it might appropriately go and, once it’s filed, most of us forget which one we chose. We come back for it later, can’t find it, rummaging begins, stress ensues.

But the other way, our way, my way, is the method Prof Landsdale has called the Volcano. In the middle of the volcano is a small clear area in which work occurs. Around it is a heaped arc of papers (lint, Pez dispensers …) which, in evolving, has developed a kind of order to it. Frequently needed items tend to be near the top and centre, infrequently needed items sink and drift to the peripheries. Documents are often near where they were last put down and often, through use, come to cluster with related documents. In its own way, it’s a kind of system and, unlike a filing cabinet, it’s chock-full of memory cues. It works! It works, Dad!

So, on the wall behind my desk, is a photocopy of a newspaper article talking about Prof Landsdale’s model. Of course, it’s completely obscured by plies of paper at the moment but, one day, I’ll clean deep enough to find it again and make my Dad read it.

‘Untidy desk, untidy mind?’ I’ll take both, thanks. Making a novel is not a tidy process. It branches everywhere. It’s a thicket you need to find your way through, but that’s exactly what it needs to be. If it’s not a thicket, it’s not a novel.

So, what works for you. Are you reading this in your neatly pressed Team Tidy T-shirt, or are you with me in the volcano?

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It’s Not About Shelving The Books and Keeping Kids Quiet

Some schools no longer have teacher-librarians and, the more I see of teacher-librarians, the less sense that makes to me. What’s next? No teachers? Kids turning up to the classroom each morning and inventing the day ahead? Maybe there’s a note on the door about what the curriculum has in mind, maybe there isn’t …

Each time I’m told that a school no longer has a teacher-librarian, I’m told that the school still has a library, as though the building does the job all by itself. I imagine, as usual, classroom teachers are expected to take up the slack and add the library to their already overcrowded list of duties. And kids are taught how to check books out, as if they’ve suddenly been up-skilled, and as if that’s what it is that teacher-librarians do (along with putting them back in the right place, and stopping things getting too noisy).

Some news for schools thinking of going librarian-free: having some books on shelves in the school’s second-biggest building – along with a chillout zone with half a dozen lunch-stained beanbags – does little for your students lives without a well-trained passionate human or two in there to wake the place up and get the most out of it.

Some advice to anyone running school budgets anywhere: CUT THE TEACHER-LIBRARIANS LAST. Cut other things and give the T/Ls more money. Cut other things and hire more of them. Sell as many lamingtons as you need to to keep them. Because I’ve seen what they do. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but let me name a couple of recent schools that brought the importance of teacher-librarians home to me: St Eugene College, Burpengary and Emmaus College, Jimboomba (two places almost an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s CBD, in opposite directions).

The librarians in these schools worked in different ways, but in each place there was a passion to create a reading culture, and a whole lot of imagination applied to ways of doing that. Why does that matter? Okay, so I like books, and I like the idea of promoting reading, but that’s about 5% of it. Promoting reading does far far more than that.

Promoting reading promotes literacy and prepares students for life. Promoting reading promotes questioning, exploring and thinking. Reading broadens a student’s view of the world, knowledge of it and understanding of it. Reading can dramatically increase a student’s options for the future. Reading can help erase disadvantage and create advantage. Reading can increase understanding and empathy. Time Magazine recently headed an article Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer because there’s evidence it can and it does.

Teacher-librarians know that reading (deep reading, the reading of books, whether e or p) can change lives significantly for the better and that’s why, despite us almost always underpaying and overworking them, they keep coming back. And they do change lives. They see it and I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the alternative too. I’m not saying every school without a dedicated teacher-librarian is automatically diminishing its students prospects, but I’ve been to schools with human-free libraries. One of the more demoralising comes readily to mind, with its half-empty shelves of books from the 60s and 70s (by which I mean not reprints of books from then, but actual books from then, with cinnamon-coloured pages and more dog ears than a puppy farm – books that, if offered as a donation at my local Lifeline bookstore, would be met with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’). The only decoration was a saggy inflatable solar system mobile hanging from the ceiling, planets out of order, Pluto at the margins, still holding on. I’ve spoken in that library with the shelves pushed back, to a cluster of blank-faced kids who had never had the chance to learn how to be an audience, who had never really connected with the idea that books had authors, who had mostly learned to be quiet but perhaps not to listen, who couldn’t think of a question to ask or answer a question asked of them, who didn’t seem to have have been given the tools to play a word game or solve a puzzle.

‘We don’t have a librarian, but they check their own books out,’ I’ve been told. Do they? Really? And what do they do with them then? No one’s morale is high in a room like that, and mine’s around boot-level when I leave, nonetheless determined to go back if the chance arises. Not that sporadic author visits can fix much at all. Put a dedicated teacher-librarian into that building though, and the prospects are very different.

Someone there every day, dedicated to books and reading and bringing skills, imagination, energy and passion, can stop books being a blank, an uninteresting mystery or a chore, and start turning them into access points to stories, entertainment, facts, ideas and a wider world. Not every day will be easy or see great progress and not every child will be won over, but any child who is has his or her life changed for the better. And that is a very very big achievement. We lose something every time we underestimate it.

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The Surprise Salad (or Why Writers Festivals Are Still Fun After 26 years)

My first writers festival was Brisbane, in 1989. That’s a story in itself involving dancing chickens, some terrible poetry on my part and time as a storytelling armchair, but for now let’s stick to my latest writers festival experience: Sydney, yesterday. I’m well over a hundred festivals into this job. I should be over it now. Thankfully, I’m not.

I’m not over it because a well-run festival is at worst a pleasant experience (meeting readers, catching up with writers you haven’t seen for a while) and a poorly-run festival doesn’t kill you (or at least hasn’t yet, in my case). But my favourite thing about festivals is their capacity to surprise – to offer a whacky experience sitting somewhere beyond the imagination horizon, but that is suddenly handed to you in the real world. And I had one of those yesterday. And, like most of experiences of that kind, it spent a good while teetering on the brink of grand-scale embarrassment while falling back the right way and ending up a total gift.

By mid-yesterday, my Sydney Writers Festival experience was going well. The whole festival seems to be. The room at Campbelltown Library on Thursday booked out (okay, so not everyone made it, but life does that), the catering there was great (so many enticing varieties of mini quiche – who’d have thought?), my driver was a smart guy called Wayne and I learned a thing or two from him.

Yesterday morning’s workshop was full of clever people who worked hard and worked me hard and turned out some fine ‘show don’t tell’ work that suggested some real writerly skills.

After a lateish night on Thursday and three hours of workshopping, my brain felt like 1.4kg of pizza dough by mid-yesterday. I left the workshop building at 12.30 and, the day being as scheduled it was, spent the walk back to the festival doing an interview with a smart young writer (yes, you, Madi M), arriving at the festival precisely on time to walk into the temporary ABC studio there to play a two-hour game on radio. A game Dominic Knight, the host had pitched to me the week before and that I had been unable to resist. And he knew about my timing problems, so offered lunch as part of the deal.

Here was the brief: write a children’s story in under two hours in front of a studio audience, responding to cues from the audience, with several live updates on progress during the show. Now, that could go badly wrong, and therein lies its charm. My tolerance for embarrassment is now so great, that I’m way more able to be persuaded out of my comfort zone than I once was. Partner Mal Meninga in a canoe race? Sure. Place soccer in a celeb curtain raiser to a big game in front of 30,000 people? Bring it on. Crazyarse borderline-impossible storytelling in full public view? I’m your writer.

This was to be my dose of festival quirk, and it delivered quirk way beyond my expectations. Here’s how.

Dom’s show was chock-full of great, possibly one-off, ideas. Idea #1: interview Annabel Crabb, host of the irresistible Kitchen Cabinet (for those not in the know: a TV show in which she goes to the homes of federal ministers and opposition front benchers and interviews them while they cook her a meal), with Dom’s genius idea being to turn the tables – in two ways – by making her prepare a meal on stage during the interview, and by sampling her TV show to have her interviewing herself.

Annabel made a Greek salad, and this is where the event, from my point of view, went from great to something even better.

I was led to my spot. Had there been an orchestra pit, I would have been in it, but there wasn’t one. I had my back against the stage, a card table in front of me for my laptop and, immediately in front of it, an audience of several hundred.

It was time for the prompts. Dom gave me a heroes name: Valentine. It’s probably no coincidence that we were in the timeslot James Valentine usually occupies. Dom asked the audience for a villain: they nominated ‘The Budgie Smuggler Thief’. Thanks for that. He called for a quest and they suggested some kind of search for treasure. Then came the words that had to be incorporated. The dozen or so suggestions were written on a recycled TV gameshow-type wheel, which was duly spun and gave me ‘blender’, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘spectacles’. Thanks heaps. There’s got to be a great instant story in those. But that’s the game, isn’t it?

At each update it was spun again, giving me ‘frog’, ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Tony Abbott’, then ‘nose/knows’, ‘wind’ and ‘dishwasher’. Great. Dishwasher.

On statewide radio and with a packed room, the task had debacle written all over it, and that suited me. Off I went, as soon as I had my first three words. But where was the lunch I’d been promised?

Um, well, this was the ABC and in a stroke of budgetary genius it wasn’t something from the cafe. it was … Annabel’s interview Greek salad, repurposed as an actual meal.

So I have now had the brilliant unrepeatable experience of being wedged in the gloom between a stage and a sizeable audience and having to create – in full view, in no time at all and for live statewide broadcast – a children’s story from a ludicrous word salad of suggestions, while eating a salad Annabel Crabb has just made for me, direct from the big pink salad bowl and using the big spoons she’s used to toss it, with a growing pile of olive pips on my card table.

And this is maybe the biggest reason why writers festivals are still fun after 26 years of them. You do your panels, you catch up with old friends, you make a few new ones and then, when you least expect it, you sign up for a crazyarse radio game and someone you’re a big fan of makes you lunch.

I can never see myself getting bored with that.

Thank you Dom, thank you Annabel, thank you Sydney Writers Festival.

[Note: The story itself, such as it is, with its slender storyline, dodgy references to body parts and demographically inappropriate political allusions, is likely to appear on the 702 ABC Sydney site early next week]

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So Where Has All The Reading Gone?

I’m on the road at the moment with a book for younger people – 8-12-year-olds my publisher says, and they would know more about that than I do (though it already has some adult readers too). Like anything I write, at some level it got written because the urge to write it was an itch I couldn’t scratch any other way but, at a pragmatic level, it’s no bad thing it’s being targeted to that demographic.

Why? Because they read. They have time to do it, many of them like to do it, people buy them books and they read. I don’t mind what platform they choose to do it on – whether the book be e or p – but most of them still opt for the paper version. If a child shows an interest in a book, if the family has money for it, there’s every chance that book will come their way. We know what reading does to young brains, and it’s good.

But what about the grown-ups? Who’s still reading? And what are they reading? Are you 30 and still reading a lot? Or 40 and still reading a lot? Or 50? I suspect a lot of people aren’t. I fear we’ve shed readers this century, and I don’t know if or when they’re coming back.

Here are some factors I think might be at work. For many people, there’s work, study and family responsibilities, but there’s nothing new going on there, so I think there’s more to it.

There are some economic factors, though I don’t think they’re the whole picture either. When the GST came in in Australia in 2000, books were taxed for the first time and unit sales of books in Australia dropped 19% the following year. A few years after that, the financial crisis made people cautious with their spending – novels were a discretionary purchase that suddenly became way more discretionary – then in Australia a major bookselling group collapsed.

Some books are still selling, because they’re textbooks or some other kind of non-discretionary purchase. And kids and YA books are booming. All of which means some segments of the adult discretionary market must be quietly tanking.

Who is still reading? Some voracious readers of genre fiction are perhaps more voracious than ever. When the numbers were crunched on all sales in Amazon’s Kindle Store for one day last year, three genre categories dominated: romance and its subgenres, crime/mystery/suspense, and fantasy and the other spec fic genres. If you look at the numbers and extract only those relating to adult fiction, those categories are the killers and everything else is in their dust. Three per cent of adult fiction purchases in the Kindle Store that day were literary fiction.

Readers of genre fiction often read a lot of genre fiction. Maybe what we’re seeing is people with 200-book-a-year reading habits suddenly working out they can buy 300 books a year for far less by ebooking it. And genre readers talk. They are networked and they were in chat rooms when the rest of us thought all rooms needed walls and a ceiling. Some genre fiction has surged from nowhere to huge success on a tide of reader support.

But what about the rest of us? The people who read outside those genres and used to read, say, 20 books a year? If that was you in 2000, how many books are you reading now? My guess is a lot of people are reading less. So, where has all the reading time gone?

On public transport, people used to sit reading novels. Now most of them are working their phones. A handful might be reading books on them, but most aren’t. I can’t complain. I hit level 52 of Fruit Link before I started dreaming too much about playing it and made myself back away. Here are three interesting stats that might be part of the story.

In 1971, the world videogame industry grossed $0. The following year, Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn put a Hitachi TV in a wooden box and created Pong. By 2013, the world videogame industry grossed US$60 billion a year. That’s a huge amount of human time going to videogames.

And then there’s all the enticing interweb time-suckage options (news sites, Facebook, Twitter, you sitting here reading this when your time could be gainfully spent purchasing my books, ahem, I meant reading books). I buy into these as much as anybody, but here’s just one to think about. By the time Gangnam Style racked up its billionth view on YouTube, if each view had involved only one person and they had watched to the end, it would have used up 50 million hours of human time. Indulge me in some pure speculation: if a fifth of that time would otherwise have gone to reading and an average book takes ten hours to read, that’s a million books that weren’t read. A million books. Because of one song on one platform of a vast, captivating internet.

Twelve days ago, Netflix became official in Australia. We signed up on day one. This is a golden age of TV, and some of the long-form drama now being made for grown-ups is remarkable. On night one, we watched episode one of season three of House of Cards. I am now binge viewing it until it’s done. Here’s one point that surfaced on Netflix’s launch day: despite it being illegal, 200,000 Australians households had set up fake US addresses to access it already.

My bet is a lot of those people used to read and now they read less. Anyone I know who has signed up to Netflix has done it because of a love of quality long-form narrative with complex characters. A great novel used to be our best and maybe only option for that, and now it’s not.

I’m wondering if, one way or another – and often in many ways – our entertainment time is being sliced up finer and finer until there’s no longer a space big enough to fit a novel in.

In case there’s any doubt, let me be clear about one thing: I am not talking about the end of writing or the end of literature. I’m aware the world is in another phase of that debate at the moment (see this article in the LA Times). Writing will continue for the simple reason that far too many of us can’t resist the urge to do it. But how is reading going?

How about you? How is your entertainment time carved up? Are you reading novels? Are you reading as many as you once were?

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Analogue Men – The Missing Chapter

Every novel goes through editing. Things come in, things go out. More is made of some things and less of others. And then a thousand tiny tweaks occur.

Analogue Men lost very little – only one piece of any real size, in fact. My publisher noticed we didn’t actually need the short chapter about yoga at all. Yes, I thought it was funny. I have no idea if she did. But once she raised the dreaded question of relevance, I knew it was gone. Maybe I had things I really wanted to say about yoga, but is Analogue Men a novel about yoga? No. Does the yoga chapter take the story forward in any way? No. Does it cast fresh light on the workings of the central character’s brain? No. That job’s already in hand.

In editing a novel, you pick your battles. And sometimes you tell yourself, ‘this’ll at least give me an out-take to share when the book comes out’.

So here it is. The missing yoga chapter. It takes place after Andrew goes for a run one morning. Other than that, there’s nothing you need to know.

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I’ve always taken a yoga DVD with me when I’ve travelled for work, and always the same yoga DVD, featuring Jessie Chapman, supple as a jellyfish, on the beach at Byron Bay.

Jessie Chapman, who never breaks a sweat, would not condone moving straight from the run to the mat, but Jessie Chapman isn’t the boss of my day and we get on perfectly when I allocate her twenty seven minutes to order me around, calmly and reassuringly and in the same series of instructions and poses every time.

My three favourite yoga poses are tadasana (mountain pose), savasana (corpse pose) and the rest at the end. At a technical level, tadasana might be complicated in fifteen intricate ways, but the lumpen non-yogaphile – the brittle question-mark-shaped conscript – can learn to love it as the pose he or she comes to know as ‘standing still’. As for corpse pose, even dogs can play dead. You’re flat on your back with your arms out to the sides. It’s only number two for me because, in yoga, there is no pillow. And without a pillow, my neck holds my head just above the floor.

I am not a group yoga person. I do not do yoga for the bells, or to chant ‘om’ with other devotees, or to have a hippy make odd observations about my thyroid status. That intrusive triad sums up the one yoga class I went to. I do yoga because, if I don’t, I might seize up into a big nerve-crunching act of Meccano.

What I don’t understand is why people pay for classes at all. Isn’t that just paying for someone to stand in front of you and tell you you’re crap at bending, and all the while you’re risking a fart in company?

After twenty-seven minutes I don’t feel serene or that I’ve gone any way to tidying my errant chakras, but at least it’s done. For what it’s worth, I’ve banked another yoga credit. When the day of reckoning comes and all spines are assessed and most found wanting, I can know I’ve got Jessie Chapman in my corner, insisting that I’ve done my bit.
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