Writer, reader, and arts consultant Kate Larsen shares key themes and insights from VOLUME – the national reading symposium by Australia Reads.
In September 2023, hundreds of Australian reading industry professionals and advocates came together online for the inaugural VOLUME national reading symposium from Australia Reads.
Australia is a nation of readers, with reading the second most popular way we engage with art, culture and creativity (after listening to recorded music). Yet 44% of us have low or very low literacy, 25% haven’t read a book in the last year, and recent research shows a 7% drop in the number of young people reading for pleasure.
Australia’s vast reading landscape includes writers, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, school and public librarians, teachers, arts and cultural sector practitioners and (of course) readers of all ages, levels, formats and genres. As Yuwaalaraay author and performer Nardi Simpson said in VOLUME’s opening keynote, this entire continent is ‘library, text, educator and artist.’
In spite of this scale and complexity, VOLUME revealed strong themes and shared experiences, and provided an opportunity for reading advocates to learn from one another (and from other industries) to build Australia into a true reading nation.
Access all areas
Unsurprisingly, access to reading opportunities and resources in a range of locations, price-points and formats is key – including print books, ebooks and audio books, but also newspapers, magazines and websites, spoken word performances and story times, digital, social media and other emergent platforms.
Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Ben Bowen encouraged us to call out the unspoken etiquette surrounding reading and remove judgement about what we read, where, or how quickly. This requires us to remove the ‘guilt’ from our ‘guilty pleasures’ and accept all reading as equally important and valid – including reading for distraction or entertainment as well as education, and celebrating reading in all genres and all formats (moving away from internalised snobbery around genre, ‘audio books don’t count’, or dismissal of reading on digital devices as taking away from ‘real’ reading time).
Visibility and value
Although more than two thirds of Australians read for pleasure, many of us do so in private, or using headphones or digital devices that hide our reading habits. Initiatives that model reading in public are an important part of making the value of reading more visible, and reestablishing it as a normalised and productive behaviour. This could include reading together as a family, school or social activity, book clubs in pubs or social media readathons, or leveraging trusted or celebrity recommendations as entry-points for new or reluctant readers.
Literacy and lifelong learning
Time poverty and the rising cost of living can both mean Australian children don’t have access to the literacy resources or stories they need to understand themselves and each other. However, adult literacy and lifelong learning are also significant issues. We need initiatives that break down stigma, remind people that there are different sorts of literacy and engagement, and provide opportunities for adults to increase their skills and support intergenerational learning.
Writing Country, identity and place
VOLUME panelists and participants agreed on the importance of all Australians being able to see their experiences reflected in what we read about ourselves, including respect for First Nations stories, truth-telling and reading from, on and about Country, amplifying the voices of authentic, lived experience (particularly from under-represented communities), and sharing stories that celebrate our diverse, multicultural identity. As technologist and writer Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker reminded us, this isn’t just the role of history, memoir or lore. Writing and reading fiction can be a radical act of imagining less violent pasts or more hopeful futures, and provide real-life strategies to avoid those dystopias happening.
The power of partnerships
Bringing together partners and allies was a consistent theme in the literary sector’s codesign of successful reading initiatives, including usual suspects like education, health and social care providers and unexpected friends like the youth justice system or commercial businesses. For example, CEO Jonathan Douglas talked about the National Literacy Trust’s work with McDonalds and Premier League football clubs in the United Kingdom to break the link between poverty and low levels of literacy – ‘because literature and reading is everybody’s business’.
One size doesn’t fit all
Reading expands our worlds, understanding and empathy, decreases our risk of depression, and even makes us live longer (reducing mortality by up to 20%). To achieve broad and meaningful behavioural change, however, it’s important to understand which of these (or other) messages will reach our varied audiences most effectively, and to tailor our messages differently to audiences who respond to different things (particularly given most people don’t consciously know what motivates them).
Nearly double the number of Australians engage in reading every week than playing or watching sport, but sport takes place in the public realm and is so is seen as more integral to and defining of the Australian identity – including receiving significantly more investment.
VOLUME left Australia’s reading advocates with inspiration and innovations to imagine the state of abundance we could achieve if we invested more in reading: a nation in which reading is visible and valued across all levels, formats and genres, literacy is rising and understood in different ways, writers are able to sustain viable careers, all Australian stories are able to be told free of stereotypes or silencing, and in which the full potential of reading is realised as a tool to inform and inspire, educate and entertain, as well as to change minds and save lives.
Kate Larsen (she/her) is a Tarntanya/Adelaide-based reader, writer, arts and cultural consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom. Her work has been published or commissioned by The Relationship is the Project, Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Voice&Verse and anthologies, magazines and arts organisations in Australia, Asia and the UK. Her debut collection of poetry, Public. Open. Space., was published by Fremantle Press in 2023.