First Person

The Shape of a Reading Life

There are books you save from childhood, a few that somehow survive through an untidy life. I was fourteen when I bought The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I know because I wrote the date inside.

Our family, after the end of the Argus, read the Sun every day. I bought the Saturday Age for the book reviews. In my reading habits my library borrowings were sliding from children’s books into the adult section. My much-used borrowing number was 54J.

The Shirer was large and bold: black, white and red front dustjacket with twisted cross centre of page. It’s faded now but the top page edges were an elegant purple. I had a Saturday morning job and with weekly lay-by instalments it was mine. The American journalist historian brought me into an adult world and locked in place a narrative framework of what had happened just before I was born. I had no problem believing Adorno (even if I didn’t know who he was) when he said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” It was a shadow of belief I kept in my mind as later I went on to read Howl—do people still read Ginsberg? And it never prevented me from reading Cavafy, who I would discover in George Johnston’s Jack trilogy.

Inside The Rise and Fall are crusty fragile newspaper reviews I cut from the Age. Amongst them are reviews by James McAuley and A.J.P. Taylor. On the back of one is an advertisement for Morgan’s Bookshop at 104 Bathurst Street, Sydney. Eight years later it would be called Sheppard’s Bookshop and I would be working there.

Shirer’s history played a part in my early freed life when I had left a country home and was living in an unpleasant bedsitter in St Kilda. It was equipped with a suicidal portable gas heater linked by an aged rubber hose to a gas tap. Smelly and cold that winter, the room was smelly, hot and suffocating during the summer. One weekend afternoon of the long hot season I walked in Acland Street to buy a cake. Trams sent up a fine cloud of gritty dust. Probably one of my hated northerly winds was blowing. It was that sort of day.

My anecdote here is very basic. In a Jewish cakeshop I selected a cake. The man who served me was unpleasant. This is important. I don’t think he was verbally rude or crude. He was closed, unwelcoming, distant. Unpleasant. There was no friendly communication between us. I indicated my choice. He put it in a bag. He gave it to me. I paid. He returned a few coins. Given the weather he may have been wearing a short-sleeve shirt. Perhaps he had simply rolled up his sleeves. His arm came out towards me with my change. I saw the tattooed number on his forearm.

It was a shock that disturbed me then and I have never forgotten. All these years later I am telling you. I learnt a lesson, though I think I had to live more to learn it properly. My short life lived through books saw the reality of another life. I had grown up with a literary fantasy of what we now call the Holocaust. I idealised the victims. An unsympathetic man made it real.

The year of Shirer I also bought a second big book—the money came from winning second prize in an essay writing competition held by an insurance company. Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914 was another attractive hard cover. I wasn’t going out and choosing books about the wars as much as these were the books the literary pages talked about that year. Tuchman’s book had also been featured in Life magazine with colourful full-page spreads with paintings (or photographs?) of the funeral of Edward VII with which her book opens.

The First World War and the late Victorian and Edwardian period did imaginatively interest me. In my childhood, newsreel films from the beginning of the century were played at the wrong speed and the past, for me, appealed through a strange jerky speeded-up unreality. Tuchman’s was grand narrative history and it completely caught my imagination as the rail tracks she laid out led her story to its dismal muddy ending.

And then there were the paperbacks. With a regular Saturday morning job I quickly realised that working was about buying books. It was also about buying my first non-mother-chosen clothes—her choices were more juvenile Sandy Stone than 1960s fashion. Among the softcover books I bought, most long disappeared, were Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. When I re-read Stendhal a lifetime later it was all familiar, for Julien Sorel had accompanied me on my life journey. I read Voltaire’s Candide and asked an unenthusiastic high school English teacher what deus ex machina meant. She had no idea: my pronunciation may not have helped.

I read The Importance of Being Earnest (or saw the film?) and bought a second-hand copy of Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Wilde. I couldn’t work out what his crime was but instinctively knew not to ask any adult to explain. I read The Duchess of Malfi, and bought a book of opera stories (which I hardly read).

The books I read were the paperbacks for sale in an ordinary country newsagency. There were regular supplies of interesting new titles. They were sold at teenager-friendly prices. Aged fifteen I bought The Story of Chinese Philosophy (started but never finished) for six shillings. P.G. Wodehouse and Thurber came from the local library. Every book became part of my biography. It was a bad habit. Reading all the time, I hated picking up the set high school novels. I teenage-revolted at being forced to read what I had not chosen for myself. The plays we read aloud were okay but not the novels. Reading was a personal matter between me and the author. I hated literature shared in public and saved myself from a university education. Later when I did enter a university I was better prepared to direct it where I wanted to go.

Christmas, the year I was sixteen, I was given a copy of Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Understanding. I still have it. The gift was from a sophisticated Melbourne couple who had floated into Point Lonsdale and owned the Queenscliff Pilot, our local paper. I wrote a series of short articles for them on the town’s history. I was a paid writer.

I have never finished reading The Importance of Understanding because it is unending. It is, as Lin Yutang wanted, a book to dip into, and it has never disappointed. He is gentle company and his book of readings is a treasure map of Chinese literature, published at a time when Mao was starving his people and destroying their history. Lin was living in the US and Taiwan. He divides his texts into sections such as Wisdom, Literature, After Tea and Wine. His translations are smooth and appealing.

Lin himself was good company and includes several of his own sketches. In one he is a very Western and scientific man resolutely determined not to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Scrooge, subdued by ghosts, capitulated and sent out for a turkey. Lin, worn away by memories and family preparations, surrendered to his family: “Ah Ching, take this [dollar] and buy me some heaven-and-earth firecrackers and some whip firecrackers, as loud as possible and as big as possible. Remember, the bigger and the louder the better.”

Lin’s selection of texts and translations were made as millions were dying of famine in China. Without a mention of the word communism he presents some of the most humane, readable and individualistic of Chinese texts across the ages.

Real hunger in China, and here a seventeenth-century neo-prose-poem:

Make reservations for eggs with breeders of pigeons, paying down an advance. One needs about twenty of these to make a bowl of soup. Boil them in water and take off the shell. There will remain white, translucent lovely balls to put in soup. At the same time, make flour balls with flour from lotus root, with stuffing of crushed pine seeds made into a paste with the finest foreign sugar. These white flour balls can go with the pigeon eggs in the same soup. Sometimes the guests will take home a few of these white flour balls, smelling their subtle fragrance all the way. This is a most distinguished, exotic soup.

Lin preserved a culture being destroyed. Back then Western Civilisation was marked with proud capitals as Chinese culture was exterminated. Now it is we who need a Lin Yutang to preserve the good and bad in our past for a future to rediscover and re-love.

When, aged eighteen, I was beginning my independent life, the Melbourne Cantonese restaurants I ventured into were ruled by bad-tempered waiters who served delectable crispy pork and rice with a bowl of clear soup: nourishing and tasty and affordable. The things they were eating at the corner table always looked more interesting. And later still when I delved into South-East Asia, wandering from Singapore to Luang Prabang, I never met anyone with whom to discuss elegant Chinese poetry. The premises in Vientiane with the cultural folk dancing was more a tin shed with prostitutes.

Another book from my youth I have never read which influenced my life is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I was out of work, not for long, and I picked up a copy in a Melbourne bookshop. It opened on a page (in my memory) in which he talked about surviving brutalising poverty in frightening dosshouses. It terrified me and I have never returned to read more.

More books in Melbourne I found at the Athenaeum Library. It was a private subscription library with a section of well-chosen French literature in translation. I read Colette, Cocteau, Proust and more. Some nice people asked my adolescent self what I was reading. I said Proust. I had no idea how his name was pronounced. They laughed but I didn’t mind. The young snob knew that he had read Remembrance of Things Past and they hadn’t.

I won’t say books have ruined my life, though they have. I have always been susceptible. I read P.D. James and drink endless cups of tea. The more hard-boiled sleuths downing whisky, ditto. Nordic noir leaves me noir. At times I have found myself offering profound advice and realised that I am simply parroting what I have just read or seen in a film a few days before.

My teenage self read Renoir My Father by film-maker Jean Renoir and discovered the artist’s ridiculous belief that life was to be lived as though one was a cork floating about in the movements of a river. To this stupid adolescent it made perfect sense. I adopted it (or vice versa) as my own policy for life. Strangely, it treated me well.

My slightly older twenties self read Dennis Bloodworth’s An Eye for the Dragon and I went to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I went onwards to Paris and London because it was cheaper than returning to Sydney and the cities filled my imagination. But they weren’t enough. I had read Frantz Fanon (absolutely hopeless guide) and went to Algeria because I wanted to live under a socialist government. Later I became an anti-socialist because I had lived under a socialist government.

The books which chose me in my youth fed a working-class boy’s curiosity and built confidence in an invisible future. I sensed a unity in our past, our present and my future expectations. I thought I shared those traits with my contemporaries. I was wrong. 

Saving books, preserving them and the precious culture they embody, is the best thing we can do for those who come after us. There will always be one more curious kid.

3 thoughts on “The Shape of a Reading Life

  • call it out says:

    A sweet recollection. Collecting and saving books from times before has great importance. Those who wrote in the past reflected times unimpeded by modern fashions. This is not to say they were unaffected by their own, but they do offer some balance and fresh insights.
    My growing collection from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s on indigenous issues is a case in point. Libraries have pulped most of this stuff, in favour of recent politically charged publications.
    My small success is the books I collect live on, and a minor victory is that I have some success in recommending more balanced publications to be acquired by my local library. That is something we all can do.

  • cbattle1 says:

    “call it out”: Libraries pulping books is always a bad thing; we should be able to freely investigate history from all the sources, and then make up our own minds. I remember, a few decades back, reading an account at a local library of an early settler in the area who witnessed a party of Aboriginals returning from a successful raid with a number of captives, who were wailing and crying pitifully. Presumably they were young females to be used as wives/slaves. I don’t know if those historical archives in the reference section survived the flood that later inundated the library, but I’ve never heard of such stories and anecdotes from the oral histories told by the local Aboriginal elders!
    I once worked at the Waverly Library in Bondi Junction, and was disturbed to learn that the library was to purge the books in the “stacks” that hadn’t been called for within a certain period of time, and that the books would be taken to the Council incinerator for destruction! Why not give them away for free? Who knows what books went up in flames?

  • Stephen Due says:

    Nice recollections! As a teenager in Melbourne, one had access to good libraries, and the wonderful second-hand booksellers in the city, such as Kenneth Hince at the top of Bourke Street. It was an adventure, but not an ideal education. Really, one needed more guidance. A lot of valuable time, in my case, was wasted on Biggles, then Hammond Innes and even (in due course) Hemingway. One needed to be taught Attic Greek and Classical Latin to read, in their own words, the ancient authors who shaped our civilisation. One needed to read, and learn by heart, selections from the King James Bible, from Shakespeare and Milton. The adventure of self-directed reading was fun, but one became like an explorer, lost and wandering in circles without a compass. The enquiring mind needs direction, so often lacking in our superficial culture. We need skilled guides to help us take life – and therefore reading – seriously.

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