'I confess to enjoying literary brainfood,' writes actor Peter Feeney.
I panicked as soon as I was asked to write this column. Suddenly, whatever I was reading felt like it wasn't enough. Maybe it's never enough because we perceive reading as having not just a recreational but also, somehow, a moral value. Like going to the opera.
I certainly push books on to my children as if they have the power to save their souls. They read like their lives depend on it, several a week. I read to my youngest, Tilly (she's 8). This has opened up worlds. I enjoyed Dunger by Joy Cowley much more than she did, even bawling at the end. Now I'll read anything by Cowley. You can really see the bones of the story so clearly in good children's writing: the craft shines through. The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi was like that. Just golden. The other New Zealand writer Nic (my wife) and I are mad on is Elizabeth Knox. Wake just blew my mind. I cannot wait to devour The Absolute Book, her latest.
But if it wasn't for the kids, I'd hardly be reading anything this year. I blame lockdown. The charms of Netflix, TVNZ on Demand and all those free streaming trials proved irresistible to my wife and me. TV (and, I believe, porn viewing and probably reproduction) surged in lockdown. But I'm not so sure about reading. I managed just one: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This was an arctic voyage based on faulty science, dooming the Jeannette's crew to be besieged on all sides by pack ice and heroism. The ice won – and there's a bitter and beautiful sting in the book's ending.
I confess to enjoying literary brainfood. I actually finished The Luminaries last year, loved it - but then really hated the ending, a whodunnit without a dunnit (which I was probably too dim to see). Last year's tally also included Selfie by Will Storr; Range by David Epstein and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Books like this give powerful insights into how our species' operating software works, although no greater hope of escaping all the human limitations and failings described.
I have to buy the books I read. I was brought up around great stacks of weighty tomes. My aunt in Christchurch had a huge room that housed their only toilet - and hundreds of books. So I did buy (but have turned the house upside down and can't find) Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper (edited by Jean Benedetti). I read this book just to find one quote for my own book - and I finally did. But I read on after that and confess that it did bring me to tears, because dear Olga continued to write to her husband after his death. These letters are included as well. If a book can move me like that, it's done its work.
Acting and How to Survive It, by Peter Feeney (Tinderbox Press, $45) is available at actorslab.co.nz and selected bookstores.