On Purpose: A Talk Delivered at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2015
by Eleanor Catton
Reading is a creative act: it cannot happen automatically, and it cannot happen passively. Whether you are reading an academic argument or a poem, whether you are reading a dream or an appetite or tracks in the snow, you are using your imagination in the sense that you are seeing something more than what is there. You see not just the words, but what they mean; not just the people, but who they are; not just the shapes, but what the shapes suggest, and how, and why.
It is impossible to read something when you are bored—in fact, this is a contradiction in terms, for boredom implies an imaginative lack, and reading is both the exercise of the imagination, and the enlargement of it. You can watch television when you are distracted or drunk or half-asleep—the picture will go on without you—but if you are any of these things with a book in your hand then you cannot really be said to be reading. On screen, sight and sound, which are external to the body, are separated from the bodily senses of smell, taste, and touch; on the page, all the senses must be invoked equally. So too with the immaterial dimensions: our imaginations, after all, are not only sensory, but emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and even moral.
rest of talk here