Category Archives: Politics

Reading Minds

I used to work in a job where people read books. Some read them on their devices, but most brought along actual books. Books they loved.

This wasn’t the distant past. People also chatted, messed around on phones or flicked through magazines. Some preferred to close their eyes and escape the day. But most chose to read books.

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As a writer, I always asked what they were reading, and why. It was a good way to relax them, to take their mind off the 16-gauge needle I was about to slide into their arm. It also helped me understand readers better. Were they reading for distraction or passion, to acquire knowledge and understanding, or to simply affirm their beliefs?

Once, a woman proudly said she only read non-fiction, because she didn’t want to waste her time on things that weren’t true. She was reading a book by a famous TV medium. The irony lingered briefly in her eyes before disappearing into enthusiasm.

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One of the truisms of reading is that women read more fiction than men, and that men read less fiction as they get older. And even though I was always a big reader (and writer) of fiction, this has happened to me, accelerating with the age of demanding devices and constant distraction. Now, I have to make myself read, to regain the lost joy of reading.

I’m reading a novel about astronauts practicing to go to Mars, and another told by Shakespeare’s little brother. They’re cracking reads, full of exciting science and history, insight and humour, beauty and pain, but my phone constantly lures me away with its tantalising chimera of connection.

This morning, I avoided reading a novel by scanning an article about Quorn. It is set to become the first multi-billion dollar alt-food. It is not meat. It is not even a plant. It is an ultra-processed mould, which is not how it is marketed. I like having an alternative to meat, but anything ultra-processed is not food.

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I then read an article about how the human brain has shrunk by 20% in the last 30,000 years, mirroring the process of domestication. Domestic animals don’t need to think, we do it for them, defining their needs. Settling down into civilisation has done the same to us. We don’t need to know how to hunt and gather, so our hungry brains (which take the lion’s share of our blood and energy) have withered.

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And it’s not just food that we have outsourced. We all used to sing, tell stories, entertain and attract potential mates. We now leave that to our betters.

Algorithms can predict what we will like before we have had a chance to form an opinion. They know what will engage and enrage us.

Neanderthals had much bigger brains than modern humans. They needed it to thrive in a pretty tough environment, so they were probably cleverer than us. Which goes against our naturally self-aggrandising assumptions, since we see no Neanderthals walking in the street, or on Twitter.

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But current estimates reckon about 40% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in us, in different little bits, spread throughout the population. You and I have about 2%, but no one knows exactly what it is doing. Hopefully we possess part of their cleverness. Maybe their love of art or dress sense. Early human cave paintings in Iberia have recently been attributed to them, not us. Maybe they gave us storytelling, music; a sense of the divine. It seemed to suddenly appear in humans 50,000 years ago, when we came face-to-face with our big-brained cousins.

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Reading novels increases human empathy. This is a measurable fact. Maybe that is why women read more novels then men. That is my speculation. But I know for a fact that the people I stuck needles into for 7 years read more novels than any other type of media. They gave of their time, body and blood, for people they didn’t know. Because they cared.

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I’ve started reading novels again. Because you are what you eat, and fiction matters. Because we live in a world where a semi-literate clown can be elected to great power while spurning truth and novels.

Fiction, like a good meal, makes me feel better about myself and the world. That is something that rarely happens when I stare at a device.

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First of All

Firstly: I think it’s great that our Prime Minister is having a baby. It’s nice. It makes me happy.

Secondly: I love all the discussion it has provoked. Yes, there is plenty of vitriol born of sexism, and a queer sense of betrayal, but that is the nature of social media and the overall discussion is a good one to have.

Thirdly: Why are so many people crowing with pride? Unless you are directly involved (or one of the grandparents-to-be) aren’t you as deluded as those pouring scorn? It is like celebrating the success of a team you didn’t play in. Surely you have to be on the field, or in the bed, to take pride?

Just like a sporting triumph, I believe a lot of people think it says something great about our nation. Yes, I’m tempted to cheer along, but the pregnancy of our PM comes a very distant second to the leader of a troubled, and socially repressive, Muslim state that beat us by 28 years. 28 years!!! A generation ago!? I see no reason for claiming a medal. They were packed away yonks ago. The cheering crowds have gone home to make, and raise, babies (and grandchildren).

Fourthly: New Zealand has always prided itself on being an egalitarian nation. It is one of our most cherished founding myths, an oft-celebrated characteristic of our national identity. Yes, the gap between rich and poor has greatly increased over the last decades, and celebrity worship has crept in, but we still resist deferring to power or authority. We are not required to call police officers ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ (USA), or fawn over our ‘betters’ (UK). When I see a royal or a famous celebrity in the street I do not bow or scream or cry. Like most NZers, I treat them as I would any other human being. I either say gidday, or ignore them.

Fifthly: Jacinda and Clarke (and baby-to-be) are ­not, as reported, the ‘First Family’. This is an unofficial term used to describe the family of the head of state of the USA. Which is a republic. Which we, as yet, are not.

This misnomer seemed to sneak in during the wildly popular terms of John Key as Prime Minister when media darling, Max Key, was repeatedly referred to as the ‘first son’. The fact that this scion of privilege grabbed this mantle with three arms is understandable given a fawning media, his narrow life experience, and the actions of his father in bringing back the archaic titles of Sir and Dame in order to elevate his sporting heroes, and mates, above the hoi polloi.

This may seem all a bit pedantic, but founding myths and national identities are important. They inevitably contain as much self-delusion as truth but, nevertheless, they are the stories that bind us.

I take pride in our egalitarian myth. I enact it and take part. No one stands above me, and I stand over no other. No one should be held back, or elevated, because of gender, race or class.

Last verse (same as the first): I love the fact that our PM is having a baby. But Clarke is not the ‘First Man’, or ‘First Dad’, as he has repeatedly been referred to in our news and social media.

The first family of NZ is actually the family of our Head of State.

If people don’t know who that is, then it’s time to ask questions of our country, our media, and ourselves.

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