Did you know that there was a gold rush in New Zealand in the nineteenth century? I had no idea – absolutely none at all. In fact, I did not even know that there was gold in New Zealand!
For those of you who have read it, you will probably already have guessed that I am reading The Luminaries, the 800-page Man Booker Prize winning novel, written by 28-year-old Eleanor Catton. Now, I do appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, it means nothing at all that an English Literature lecturer in Reading in the twenty-first century knows nothing about the exploitation of gold mines in New Zealand in 1866, but it matters to me.
You see when I was at school we were taught that New Zealand had a climate very similar in places to the UK’s climate and so had some similar farming techniques (mainly sheep farming, I recall) and that, like England at the time, coal mining was an important feature in the economic landscape. Despite seeing The Lord of the Rings movies so many years later, I still thought of New Zealand as a sort of big Great Britain, just spread out a bit more. Ridiculous, I know, but that was the sort of geography I was taught (I have very little idea where anything actually is, but I am a real whizz at bronze-age settlements and the names of capital cities).
So, learning that there was (and presumably still is) gold in the strata beneath New Zealand should be a great leap forward for me, if only I could make it, but I have spent the first half of the book (my kindle assures me that I am 49% through) thinking that I am reading about an American gold town. Every time I notice a New Zealand reference I am surprised, and then hugely irritated with myself because it had slipped my mind, yet again.
I am learning two things from this experience. The first is the persistent power of literature. By the end of the book my view of New Zealand will have changed for ever. This will happen to you too, time and time again. The world and all its people, with all of their vices, virtues and vagaries, will settle in your mind and then you will read a piece of literature and up in the air it will all go, yet again, and settle into a new pattern. You are going to experience this for the rest of your life.
The second thing I am learning is that ignorance is also terribly persistent. It can take a surprisingly long time for your mind to assimilate new information fully and then to add this to your world view. It may have happened to you from time to time, when it takes you seemingly forever to learn a new fact or to master a new skill. Then, suddenly, one day it is just there. So if whatever you were doing before you broke off to read this post is driving you mad because it is so difficult, there’s no need to worry: there is gold in New Zealand, there are hobbits in the movies and there is capacity in your brain to be amazing.