The Auckland Writers Festival, under way at civic centre venues this week, is a testament to the continued value of the written word. In its 16th year, the festival is featuring writers and thinkers of the calibre of Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize last year, early feminist Gloria Steinem, multi-talented British comedian Bill Oddie and rock musician and Australian politician Peter Garrett. The fact that the festival continues to attract the sponsorship for such a programme suggests it is well patronised by people who enjoy books and appreciate the people who write them.
Literature, like most things, is taking different forms in the digital age. When our satirical writer Steve Braunias, who is also on the festival's line-up, recently observed that a bookcase was a rare sight in Te Atatu, he could have been writing about any place today.
Bookshelves, like CD and DVD racks, have disappeared from many a living room. When everything can be downloaded to a computer at next to no cost whenever it is wanted, why keep anything in physical form? Much as many of us still want the ability to hold a complete publication in our hands as we read it, we would be wrong to suppose those who read literature on a screen cannot be equally enriched by the exercise.
The only people missing out on the full pleasure of the printed word are those whose preferred media for news and entertainment is entirely visual. Movies and television are wonderful art forms in their own right. We would all be less well informed without the vision of events and people those provide. But reading is more stimulating for the mind. Anyone who doubts that should read a novel and then see a movie made from it. More often than not, the movie is disappointing. The book has prompted the reader's mind to create its own pictures and they remain more vivid than a camera can produce.
The written word is the product of careful thought. Writers would say it is as much the creator of thought as its product. The act of writing concentrates the mind, the choice of words and the crafting of sentences clarifies ideas and refines them. The written word also invites disagreement and debate in a reader's mind. It allows the mind to take the time to focus on words and phrases that can be disputed. Visual and spoken material seldom provide the mind with the same opportunity.
No doubt that is the reason books have not disappeared from schools, and why the Auckland Writers Festival's schools programme has become so popular it has been extended from two days to three this year. Teachers are bringing about 6000 pupils to talks and workshops run by international and local writers for primary, intermediate and secondary levels. Several students from three low decile high schools have been selected for special mentoring at the festival to encourage their creative writing.
Festivals are a celebration of an art that comes from solitary hard work but produces endless pleasure. The events are designed to be enjoyed by writers and readers alike. Check it out.