Magdalena Lorenzo is coordinator of the The Commuting Book, a project that is bringing New Zealand literature to people on public transport. Magda is picture above with an unrelated 'book fridge' community library she admired on the West Coast.
The Book Council asked her about her exciting initiative to bring local stories to commuters.
Where did the idea for The Commuting Book come from, and how does it work?
The Commuting Book started in 2016 distributing donated new and second-hand books around bus stops. It first occurred to me while commuting to work. It was a long one: I would bike to the Bus Interchange in Christchurch and then catch a direct bus.
I had plenty of time to observe people (I can’t help myself, I do that) and noticed that hardly anyone was reading. I began to think that in a way we are getting our knowledge of the world by reading the news. And that although it is very important to stay in tune of what is happening around us, news only give us a limited and partial view of the real issue. To really understand things we need more information that we can digest, analyse and process to reach conclusions or even better, to keep questioning the world. I’m suspicious of people who are quick to reach firm conclusions and closes the doors to other possible explanations. Critical thinking is so vital that relying on breaking news is at times, dangerous.
Books instead, fiction included, give us the the whole picture. You have a starting point and background information about the characters or the space where the situation takes places. Along the way, more elements are introduced to build the story and then there is an end, open or closed. My experience as a reader has been of continuously challenging my preconceptions, long held ideas, even prejudices. And I wanted to share that with others, I want to tell others how wonderful it is to discover that the world is not what we think, or taught to think, it is.
And being a happy pessimist I thought I should do something practical about it. So bringing books to open, public spaces seemed an obvious first action. People who read regularly already go to the library and buy books, but to help others get into the habit you need to provide the tools. I talked to people about this idea and it was well received and I was seriously encouraged to do it. And I thought it was so original, until Google told me that it was not. But then, Da Vinci was the last original human being, after him we are all frauds.
For about six months I read New Zealand Book Council research and other international studies, and I talked to a wide range of people, not only to validate the idea but because to make things happen you need to surround yourself with people that know more than you and know things you don’t. It took another six months to secure the basic funds and another four to develop a proper website, design the stickers and find the stories. In the process, we made friends and sponsors came on board to provide vital services and support.
It is a very simple concept: versatile, replicable, easy and inexpensive to implement. Install a QR reader in your smartphone, and catch the bus. When you come across one of our stickers, scan it and you will be immediately taken to a short story written by a New Zealand author. There are at the moment 20 different QRs, each one with a different story, if you want to read them all make sure you change seats. Stories will be replaced with new ones every month and half, it could be less but we want to give time to read them all. The stories will no disappear after that, they become available in other Scan & Read actions and then people will be able to read them on our website.
We have stories written by and for young people, book extracts by well known writers, stories from upcoming books, and a book for children that we are publishing a chapter a month, and each chapter is available both in English and Te Reo Māori.
You are also part of the WORD Festival team. Are the two projects connected?
Because we are always looking for opportunities to work together with other organisations and projects, launching Stories on the Go featuring writers coming to WORD Christchurch Festival was only natural. I met Rachael King in November 2016 to present The Commuting Book project to her and find more books to distribute. I instantly liked her, and not long after I offered myself as a volunteer. I thought I had skills they could use and for me was a great opportunity to learn how this amazing festival worked. And then I met Marianne Hargreaves, the Executive Director, and quickly understood why it is so good. They are the kind of people that make things happen. They are passionate, hardworking and generous. I was hooked. Not only was a fantastic working experience, as a reader I quickly diversify my reading list and a book that I’m sure I would have not heard about it otherwise became my 2017 Non-Fiction Book of the Year: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. She came to Christchurch and I was lucky enough to listen to her in person. Book events are not just about books, but about listening to real stories from real people who write and help us understand the world. Some of these events will stay with you forever.
When I was hired to help with the 2018 WORD Christchurch Festival, I felt the stars were aligned neatly above me.
What is your dream for this project?
In my wildest dreams, although I’m determined to make it happen, I would like to see Stories on the Go in every city, in every mode of transport on land, water and air, in bus stops and waiting lounges, in park benches, in coffee places. Access to a story written by a New Zealand author while waiting for your flight, when having a coffee, while eating your lunch in the square. Get your daily dose of storytelling, it is so good for you.
All we need are funds and willing organisations, and since we believe in the power of asking for help and are not shy to do so, here we go: contact us if you think you can help us.
There are some key elements in this project.
It is a platform for authors regardless of their age and stages of development: from the well known to the young and unpublished. I’m not a writer and don’t pretend to be one, but I’ll never forget the first time I saw one my articles published in a magazine. It was an incredible incentive to keep writing, but not everybody has the chance to show their work to large audiences. We would like to offer a space for it. If there is something I’m really disappointed about, it's that I did not manage to secure funding to pay for the stories we have now. We are relying on generous writers who believe in us and the project. I’m hoping to find ways to make it happen.
Being able to speak English besides my mother tongue Spanish and having a good understanding of at least another language has opened the world in ways that are not easy to describe. Not only can you read authors in their original languages, but it helps to build bridges with other cultures (side effects includes becoming an annoying Anglophile in my case). An absolute dream for me is to be able to offer every single story both in English and Te Reo Māori, a mammoth and expensive task, but I think it could be a useful way to get people familiarise with a language that New Zealand cannot risk to lose. Losing a language is a crime against culture and humanity.
What does the concept of ReadNZ mean to you?
My reading list is extensive, always is, but a couple of years ago I noticed that I have not included a single local author. Since I arrived in New Zealand I have been so focused on re-reading in English authors I already knew that I completely ignored all others. I think the reason I did not consciously explore New Zealand literature was that I was learning and breathing the country by living in it. I did not think I needed the extra help from books, so I kept reading books from cultures I did not know. But I felt ashamed anyway and Stories on the Go become my way to redemption. ReadNZ is personal, it’s a message to me and an incentive for the project.
There is another project that we launched in the summer, right after a cycling tour in the West Coast, that also fits with the spirit of ReadNZ. The Great Map of NZ Stories a crowd-sourced online map where real places featuring in New Zealand books are tagged. It is a fun way to connect tourism and literature, to engage locals with their own stories and to promote New Zealand books here and overseas. We would like to see the map grow and I’m sure that by presenting books in such a visual way, researchers can find useful information too.
Can you share with us some of your favourite New Zealand writers?
Because I’m an obsessive reader, when I find an author I like I tend to read everything they publish, even if it takes me years. My current New Zealand obsessions are Ngaio Marsh and Witi Ihimaera.