In the month or so since I joined the SWF team and turned my every waking moment to conceiving of what the 2021 Festival might look like, I have left my house no more than one hour a day: for essential shopping, for exercise, desperately craving a change of scene. While Melbourne’s stage four lockdown is as advertised – pretty brutal – it’s an interesting space in which to think and plan, to try to marshal the endless weightless hours into something resembling a structured life. And I won’t pretend I’m anything less than seethingly jealous at Instagram pics and Zoom calls with my new colleagues that reveal them IN A ROOM TOGETHER! WITH OTHER PEOPLE! AND EATING OUT IN RESTAURANTS! But it’s fine. I’m fine. It’s fine.
There are benefits. A pandemic lockdown can be a magical time for the obsessive book reader. Gone is the low-key judgement of others when you confess that you spent the entire weekend curled up with a book. All the demands of being in the world, of sociability and industry, of familial responsibility and community participation have become an abstract concept. Any way you can get through is acceptable, and burying yourself in a good book seems like a particularly wholesome way to maintain lockdown equilibrium.
Many of Melbourne’s extraordinary independent bookshops have found creative and proactive ways to maintain their essential services during the long, interminable Covid winter, and my childhood love of unwrapping mail – particularly book-shaped mail – is enjoying quite the renaissance. The thud of books on the doorstep is a special kind of love.
I have two children – a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old – so carving out time can be hard going, and I don’t really read in bed much any more as that’s where I pursue my other hobby of amateur narcolepsy, but reading has always been something I squeeze into available space in the day. Half-hour lunch break? Plate propped against the open pages so I can eat while reading. Five-minute walk to the shop? Book in hand. Any tiny increment of time that can be accompanied by reading is quickly filled up. I was once berated by a friend for taking a novel to his grandfather’s funeral. In my defence, it was a train ride to get there: what kind of monster takes any trip on public transport without a book? (And a backup book in case the first one disappoints or ends.)
I have always been a fast reader, slipping quickly into the kind of deep concentration reading that normally you need a week of beach holiday to achieve. It’s been a blessing that has served me well in a career where a large percentage of the work is reading. For pleasure, it’s all about fiction for me. Well, to be more precise I’m a sucker for narrative, so a certain kind of long-form journalism, memoir or history work can lure me to the non-fiction part of the bookshop, but overwhelmingly my own bookshelves at home are a testament to my love of the novel. My taste in fiction, however, is much harder to categorise neatly. Eclectic. That’s a useful word. Catholic tastes. When people ask me for favourites I tend to break out in a sweat and offer up generalities and lists of dozens of books, terrified I will accidentally leave one out.
Probably the surest sign I’ve loved a book is the number of copies I buy for gifts to thrust upon other people. It’s a sad reality of working in the book world that friends and family generally assume when you give them a book it’s a free copy, but it rarely is.
A personally selected book is just the most personal expression I know of an understanding of what will make another person happy. Over the years I think I would have conservatively bought dozens of copies of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or either of Carmen Maria Machado's books; in the past couple of years Bernardine Evaristo and Helen Garner’s latest went out into my world in multiple copies. There’s nothing quite like a book that can reliably be shared.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Where reading gives pleasure, there’s no room for guilt. A colleague ran a terrible thought exercise on me last year. Consider how many books you read a year. Then ask yourself how many more years you think you have reading at that rate. Assuming you’ll slow down at some point, try to project how many years you have at a reduced rate too. Then add them up. I’m 41, and I read fast and I read capaciously and by any measure and calculation I could manage, I reckon I’ve got probably another 4500 or so books in me (assuming I live a long, healthy life unencumbered). Maybe it’s obvious to other people, but something about calculating a likely finite figure on that sent an absolute chill through me. And it posed a question: with a dwindling number of books that you’re going to be able to read in your lifetime, what’s your personal criteria for what you want to get out of each one? Does it make you more inclined to favour pleasure or edification? What allows a book to deserve its place in your own mortally-constrained reading list?
But reading with a festival in mind is a special kind of discipline. The word ‘conversation’ is overused in public life (I’m always sceptical when an architect or urban planner says buildings are in conversation with one another) but putting together a festival is first and foremost about constructing a conversation. The different authors and books need to both literally and figuratively have something to say to one another; they need to engage the moment and a wider set of ideas, find a way to be either remarkable or representative, have power for this place at this time, as well as somehow universal. No pressure! And on top of it all, you don’t want a monolith of sameness. Spark and difference, disagreement and grit. Different styles and preoccupations and approaches and perspectives. For 2021’s Festival we’re reading for that too, determined to break down conventional power structures and elevate voices that have too often been sidelined; making sure we’re aware of our biases and working with others so that we can discover blind spots and new delights. A good festival is never just an expression of its programming team’s personal reading tastes.
For now, I’m grateful for the extra reading time, periodically looking up out my window contemplating the path for today’s walk. I want to stand in a bookshop, thumbing through a beautifully published book and buying it just because it has French flaps and deckled pages. I want to finally be in a room with my brilliant new colleagues — not constrained in the boxes of a Zoom screen – to hear what the redoubtable book nerds at Sydney Writers’ Festival think and what they’re reading. I want to be back in Carriageworks, surrounded by other readers sharing and arguing and delighting in the books they love. The bit where we move from reading as a solitary and private act to one of community is so powerful, so exhilarating. I feel very lucky to be part of thinking about how that happens.
Michael Williams was appointed Artistic Director of Sydney Writers' Festival in August 2020.