By the 1980s, bread had become so white and gutless that a “back to basics” reaction set in and suddenly real bread, with traditional goodies and properly baked, appeared. Similarly with beer, which had become so chemical and tasteless that a real beer movement, emphasising the taste of hops and malt, arose. Both ventures proved commercially successful. A similar thing has been happening with books. The publishing industry is now dominated by hastily thrown-together confections masquerading between covers as books—celebrity autobiographies, anthologies on everything, media spinoffs, sporting feats, over-hyped novels, and the endless varieties of gender studies theory. These books are often incestuous, feeding off each other in their own comforting bubble, with no new input and little contact with the deeper aspects of reality, which is what books were originally designed to satisfy. They play up to a public distracted by media sensation, as Saul Bellow noted in his book of essays It All Adds Up, and are often discarded within months.
Real books continue to appear, but are harder to find among the rubble. As I was writing this article I was enjoying a real book, Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, subtitled “The Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture”. Figes reveals how in the mid-nineteenth century the elements which constituted Europe were drawn closer together by the coming of railways, telegraphs, lithographic printing and cheaper paperback books, so people in different locales had easier access to the metropolitan experiences of opera houses, art galleries, literary salons and café society. It made contacts between the nations of Europe, from its outliers in Spain and Russia, closer and more frequent. The particular peg on which Figes hangs his story is the ménage à trois of the French-Spanish diva Pauline Garcia Giardot, her husband the French artistic entrepreneur Louis Giardot, and Pauline’s long-time and long-distance lover, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. With enviable ease, Figes blends the spheres of art, literature, engineering, finance, travel and politics. He had done something similar previously with his two books on Russian history Natasha’s Dance and The Whisperers. Whatever your particular interests, books like these provide a general education by assembling important spheres of reality, in the process opening new vistas and enlarging our perspectives.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The Europeans is a real book. I could have begun with many others—we all have our favourites. One giveaway of real books is detail; they reveal specific information to us, such as the capsule histories of the “dollar” and the “cravat” in Norman Davies’s Europe: A History. They are not at the mercy of a single specialism or monomania, but seamlessly cobble together disparate material. Claudio Magris in Danube follows the long course of the river through many countries, at every juncture documenting its literary and historical associations. Books such as these are able to distil research on topography, literature, history, archaeology, folklore, anthropology and myth into an intriguing whole. Such books are replete with new information, with interpretation arising naturally out of it, rather than the author imposing a pre-determined ideological straitjacket onto his subject.
Neal Ascherson’s wonderful book Black Sea assembles a whole new geographical amalgam for us. I’d read at school some Greek and Roman history, and parts of the Bible and the classical repertoire, but cultures beyond the Near East remained to me, as to many of the ancients themselves, a shimmering haze of unknown realities, the haunt of tribes like the mysterious Scythian raiders who intermittently appeared from the steppes at the margins of their consciousness. But using the Black Sea as his focus, Ascherson is able to integrate all his material—Pontic Greeks, Crimean Goths, Odessan traders and many more—so that the pieces of the mosaic, which to me had been fragmented, at last fall into place. As a result, the phrase “the Middle East” now sounds vastly inadequate. By placing the Black Sea at the centre of his narrative Ascherson connects it to the Balkans, Turkey and Russia, and further to Central Asia and India. And not just in place, but in time as well. Ascherson is able to make events, from the adventures of Odysseus to Gorbachev’s fateful holiday in the Crimea during the 1991 attempted coup, part of a natural progression.
Two other books on adjacent areas supplement Ascherson’s picture. In From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple describes Christian monks starting from the Mount Athos monasteries in Greece and radiating through the Middle East. And Karen Armstrong in Jerusalem provides a layered history of a habitation sacred to three world religions.
Real-book authors are usually all-rounders. Like a magnet drawn over iron filings, they are able to orient a jumble of apparently random shards together into meaningful patterns. Such books provide us with more than mere background or browsing material. The authors have been familiar with their subject matter and sources for a long time, and lovingly know its changing moods, contours and perspectives. Their writing is detached and playful, above the tumult and the shouting. These books tell a dramatic story in a time-honoured way: we are gripped by not knowing how the narrative will unfold. There are crucial incidents, sudden shifts, high points, unique characters, twists in the story, role reversals, and so on, all the characteristics of high drama and imaginative fiction.
Real books offer new perspectives. We are familiar from our religious backgrounds with the squabbles over the Reformation. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars analyses the origins of the English Reformation but not as an isolated event. He firstly recreates in all its variety medieval English Catholicism with its saints’ cults, rituals, Corpus Christi processions, devotional primers and so on, and then shows how this culture persisted under Reformist pressure for many decades; the iconoclast Henry VIII himself, for instance, remained a devotee of the traditional liturgy. Recreating the painful mingling of contending mindsets, later cast in stone as the Catholic and Protestant alignments, creates a more complex narrative than previously acknowledged, and one in which we are not driven to support one side. I happened to read Duffy’s book while teaching in Prague and saw around me the same kind of religious devotion which he outlines, with its wayside shrines, public devotions, local cults and liturgies, and variegated church music, still a living culture today in Central and Eastern Europe. Some remote places there underwent a Counter Reformation but no Reformation.
These books exist beyond the bubble of presentism, which recycles historical events through the stereotyped ideological prism of today. Real books are in sympathy with the past. They don’t bewail how past generations failed to live up to our lofty moral standards, the subtext of many contemporary invectives. These books nominate original issues and so are not predictable; they don’t, as a result, endlessly focus on standard victim categories, such as women, indigenous peoples and the environment. Even when dealing with an environmental issue like the fate of the great sequoia trees of the western USA, Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory treats it in a wholly original manner. Schama’s book on the Dutch republic of the eighteenth century, An Embarrassment of Riches, and his two-volume history of the Jews, are exemplary studies. He is also a consummate presenter of television documentaries, as is the Australian Christopher Clark, now Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, originally known for his book on the outbreak of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers, and for his history of the rise and fall of Prussia, The Iron Kingdom.
How do we come across these books? Often by word of mouth because acquaintances with curious minds recommend them, or because they keep popping up in discussions and in print, books that live on long after they appear, and insisting that we get around to reading them. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy on how, in the Appalachian hills, education could lead you out of dead-end cultures, and Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller are ones I recently came across in this way. Journals like the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books are an obvious source of information. The internet site Arts and Letters Daily, founded by the American Denis Dutton in New Zealand, reprints journal articles on a wide range of current books and ideas, and in addition provides access to an enormous number of online papers and journals.
In Australian history, Patrick O’Farrell brought to life in dense prose and loving detail the Australian and New Zealand Irish Catholic enclaves in The Irish in Australia and Vanishing Kingdoms. Paul de Serville did the same for the gentry of Victoria in Pounds and Pedigrees. Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Chatwin in Songlines opened up new understandings of the different ways Aboriginal tribes imaginatively colonised the continent. In one of his lesser-known books, Black Kettle and Full Moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Geoffrey Blainey hoovered up the odds and ends, the detritus a historian picks up on the way to the archival tip, and gave it coherence. In his books, John Carroll goes well beyond his designation as sociologist by bringing to the surface the deeper currents of the European experience, archetypes which determine our behaviour even in our ignorance of them.
William Dalrymple’s many works on India, including The White Mughal, and recently his story of the British East India Company, Anarchy, open us to the feel of the sub-continent. Henry Yule, a British army officer in India, and Dr Burnell compiled Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, published in 1886. With India as its geographic centre it brings together words, phrases and customs from not only India, but also adjacent countries such as Malaya, Persia, China, Russia, and from South-East Asia. It provides etymologies and literary examples for its entries, making wider Asian cultural and linguistic connections. It’s an Asian version of Brewer’s wonderful Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. On China we have the late lamented Simon Leys with his Chinese Shadows and his selected essays, The Hall of Uselessness.
Autobiographies produce some of the finest books. Gregor von Rezzori, an Italian official in the service of the Austrians in their remote Bukovina province, produced an unforgettable multi-volume memoir, revealing how neighbouring imperialisms stifled local cultures. The Nobel Prize-winning Polish Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote Lost in America, contrasting the ancient, religious, communal background of his Warsaw upbringing with America’s new, secular, individualistic one. Another Nobel Prize-winner, Czeslaw Milosz, described in Native Realm being raised in a Polish family in remote Lithuania. Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned to retrieve the life and memory of her murdered husband, the great Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s three-volume memoir of a journey on foot from London to Istanbul, plus his Mani and Roumeli on two distinctive areas of Greece, far transcend the travel genre.
Authors of real books sometimes seem remote, even absent as a speaking voice, since they tell their story dispassionately, not getting in the way of the narrative or the reader. Their own views and their voice come through obliquely, in a minor key, sotto voce, rather than explicitly. Their subjects come alive, and do the explaining for themselves. Such authors are not grandstanders or flag-wavers who make themselves the centre of attention and the book’s real subject, as many contemporary authors are tempted to do; instead they present us with bodies of evidence in complex but clear, jargon-free prose. They let the story slowly and naturally unravel and speak for itself. They usually don’t push a line, and where they do, as with Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily denigrating the Christian Democrats in Italy, the reader is given enough information by the author to be able to disagree with his interpretation.
A related characteristic is the dense, easy, luminous prose which gives their books lift. Peter Robb describes mummified corpses in a Palermo crypt as:
dried out and stacked away vertically in their disintegrating dress uniforms, their rotting ball gowns, their dusty frock coats … married couples were sometimes together for eternity, grinning toothily at the privilege, heads sagging on to spouses’ shoulders.
In Pounds and Pedigrees, Paul de Serville gives full weight, but with a light touch, to the many complexities of the Tichborne saga:
The Tichborne case confirmed in the English mind the suspicion that colonists were rough creatures, debased by the country’s convict associations. It certainly reversed the role of Australia. Once a haven for dissolute younger sons, it now produced from its immense interior an heir changed in shape and manners … So ended an interlude (expensive, turbulent, diverting, and, for some, tragic) of impersonation, which briefly made Wagga Wagga a name to be pronounced gingerly over the English breakfast-table.
Such deft scene-setting makes up for the dross of other writers.
In past ages, aristocrats and gentlemen scholars of means had private libraries. By the nineteenth century, nation-states set up public institutions which combined a library, art gallery and science museum for public use. Authors are now often employed in universities, think-tanks and archives, with access to grants, awards, endowments and other subsidies. Some scholars are sole traders; others write outside their day job. Then in the 1990s a quantum leap occurred which overcame the distance needed to travel to a library or bookshop. The internet with its almost unlimited digitised information became the world in your own study, with newspaper archives, book texts, Trove, search engines, catalogues of many kinds, and so on. This did not in the long run reduce the influence of books, but made them available and desirable in more forms. The number of books being published in all areas increased enormously in the second half of the twentieth century.
About the same time as the internet appeared, many booksellers in the CBDs of capital cities found rents too high, and moved their stock online. This was a loss for those who like browsing the shelves, but the internet has meant book-buyers have an enormously increased range of choice, especially of second-hand and rare books, once again overcoming the limitations of distance. At first, in the 1990s, a good new book bought online might have cost $45 with a $20 overseas postage cost. But these prices soon dropped noticeably as the market expanded. Instead of dealing individually with the costs associated with every purchase, big firms like Amazon did a bulk deal with the US postage service, which now means a comparable book may cost $30 with a $5 postage, halving the overall cost.
Today we are blessed with all the perquisites available only to leisured scholars in past centuries. As a result, the breadth of research and writing in the best books is staggering. By providing a sustained, long-term perspective, real books have a reassuring effect on us. They widen our horizons and lift our spirits. They don’t add to the fragmentation which daily assails us, but rise above it, helping to put the world back together as one.
Patrick Morgan lives in Gippsland. His latest book, Living Memory: Selected Essays 1964–2014, was published recently by Connor Court