A Rostrum speech I prepared back in 2003 for the Arch Williams. It didn’t win.
Have you settled down with a good book lately? I mean, really settled down? Settled down so that hours pass, your shoulder hurts and your neck is so stiff and sore. When you promise your significant other that you will read “just one more chapter” before turning the light off and going to sleep â€“ and then checked to be sure that the next chapter is not just a dozen or so pages long, because that would mean you’ve cheated yourself.
I have been there, done that, so many times. When you have settled down with a good book, the world could explode into big clumpy bits of earth and rock, and you wouldn’t notice. You would not care a fig. The book, the author’s ideas and concepts, are all swirled up inside your head, stirring and mixing and educating you, giving you thoughts you couldn’t have come up with on your own.
I have spent a great deal of my life reading books. All those authors are inside my head, forming one composite author whose influence on me has shaped me for the better.
In today’s fast-paced world of SMS, email, internet pages, and 10-second grabs on television, however, nobody reads properly any more! People are so busy texting and emailing and surfing they just don’t read a properly constructed book, a book that takes you on a journey and introduces new concepts and ideas.
I believe that you will open up your mind, be better equipped to think, and be better for it, if only you will read! Tonight, let me show you, through my own experience, why more people need to let an author get inside their head. And hopefully you will be persuaded enough to let another author inside your head, and pick up a challenging book and read it.
Thinking back through my formative years, the first book that really grabbed my attention, believe it or not, was the Australian nostalgic classic, Cole’s Funny Picture Book. I was probably about seven or eight. Lots of pictures, lots of big words â€“ I was hooked. Today at 33 I can still quote sections from that book â€“ and I haven’t seen it in twenty years. “Eat live happy food, not dead, dreary food” was one message to make me eat broccoli; in another cartoon a newspaper reported sombrely that “in news just to hand, the world has blown up and everything in it has been killed â€“ more information as it comes to hand”. Professor Cole is an author right inside my head indeed. I must have read that book cover to cover a hundred times.
Later, as a rugged and wild youth of ten, my doting grandparents had me hooked on that classic of boys’ own adventures, “Biggles” â€“ yes, I know, Biggles and his good chum Algy. This was of course set in a time when there was nothing wrong with having a very good male friend with whom you knocked about for Queen and Country. Now, Biggles fairly raced around the world in rather fanciful titles such as “Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor”, “Biggles of the Special Air Police”, “Biggles Sweeps the Desert”. Biggles â€“ he who was always forthright, smart, and cunning, and always won in the end without ever breaking that oh-so-English morality. I once had an ambition to own all the books in the Biggles series, and was dismayed when I learnt that there were well in excess of a hundred of these books. But Biggles certainly stimulated my reading, and although it’s quite dated now (fictional Biggles is 102 this year), the author, Captain W E Johns, did manage to teach me various facts about contemporary history, geography, and there was always a strong moral theme to the books. And besides, Biggles nearly got a girlfriend in one book!
When I was seventeen, it was all Isaac Asimov â€“ science fiction’s Hercules. Take scientific theories, flesh them out with a bit of boys’ own action adventure (hmmm, a common theme with the books I read), and science looks pretty darn interesting. “I, Robot”, “Foundation ” – Daneel R Olivaw was Asimov’s favourite character, and fans know that the R stands for Robot. Asimov can take you floating over the pebbles of Saturn, warping across sub-space, to the depths of Jupiter’s gas clouds and frozen surface, or into the mind of an alien race. Asimov could ask “The Last Question”, and force your mind to swim across aeons of time and space to contemplate what is indeed the only question of all. Asimov â€“ stimulated an interest in science for me that continues to this day.
But then I was off to University, and university students don’t have time for such frivolity; I was bitterly disappointed when I discovered that in all of the University of Queensland’s fifteen libraries, the closest book to fiction was “Business Ethics” â€“ it was the late eighties after all. But here too, the authors I read have stimulated me, and provided me again with concepts and thoughts I could not have had. Admittedly, I could do without “Cost Accounting”, but “Transaction Cost Economics” by Oliver E Williamson â€“ now, when you read that, when you truly understand how economics drives the world you live in, you have pushed your mind across the barriers of the petty and small â€“ something clicks inside your head and you are left awestruck by a single glimpse into the author’s mind. Now, I could try to explain this theory, but you will have to pick up that book and follow the journey that the author set out to demonstrate his ideas and concepts â€“ he does it far better than I. Let that author into you.
Now, now it’s not all beer and skittles â€“ some books I have read and not agreed with them at all. But I have read them, considered their arguments, and thought of rational arguments against the author’s point of view. And such mental exercise is good for the brain, good for the intellect, and good for you.
Now, as you can probably tell by now, I’m enthusiastic about the books that authors write. All books (with perhaps the exception of “Cost Accounting”) stimulate the mind and take you on a journey. Captain W E Johns and Oliver Williamson could not be more different. You won’t be transported to another world if you read a text message or email. When you click on a link in a web page, you aren’t following a journey constructed by an author. No. As I have shown tonight by laying bare my reading history â€“ Biggles and all â€“ there are many authors inside my head, authors that form a composite whole. By reading, I have opened up my mind, I am better equipped to think, and I am better for it. I have read books from beginning to end, in a sitting or over weeks, as laid out by the author.
So please, accept my challenge. Build on that author in you, and stretch your mind, go on that journey. Pick up a book, read it cover to cover. Spend the precious time thinking through the author’s thoughts. Let their ideas and concepts swirl and mix inside your head. Float amongst the space dust, or dissect the economy as a contractual nexus. You will then come to appreciate the author that is in you, just as I appreciate all the authors that are the author in me.