The link below is to an article that takes a look at the winners of the 2019 NSW Premier’s History Awards.
The Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room will open today in a gracious space in the State Library of New South Wales. One side of it is adorned with objects from the home where I lived with my family, my father Donald Horne (1921-2005), author of The Lucky Country and numerous other books, and my mother, journalist and editor Myfanwy Horne (1933-2013) who wrote as Myfanwy Gollan.
The rest of the room is set aside for study based on ideals of scholarly curiosity, imaginative inquiry and intellectual creativity. As my father wrote shortly before he died, words like curiosity and imagination help “celebrate scholarship and the marvels of the intellectual life more generally”.
The State Library has selected certain objects from my family home to inspire their scholars and fellows program — an upholstered mid-20th century armchair, a large 19th century pedestal desk and a collection of some 4000 books.
The armchair, now upholstered in a dark green material over the original knobbly grey fabric, was acquired by my parents to furnish their first home in 1960, a small, rented two-bedroom garden flat in Sydney’s leafy Double Bay.
It was on this chair, in 1964, that my father sat “pen in hand, pad on knee”, as my mother later wrote, “to write The Lucky Country”. I was too young to remember this act of defiance, as some now see it — after all, surely a serious writer sits at a desk. The act itself was born out of necessity, and only later became symbolic (at least in my parents’ minds) when my father acquired a new string to his professional bow — a writer of books.
In the early years of their marriage in their small flat, my parents had a choice: to turn a spare room into a dining room or into a study with a desk. A dining room it became, and instead of a desk, they purchased a mahogany dining table. Not only does this choice show the importance of the dining room in middle class Australia, but also the consequence my parents gave to the well-planned dinner party. My father even brought to his marriage several signature dishes, including a delectable petit pois dish I still cook to this day as well as Ted Moloney’s and George Molnar’s Cooking for Bachelors (1959).
The Lucky Country came out of formal quests for knowledge, but also arose out of congenially robust discussion around the dining room table. My mother acquired a new professional role, as editor of all her husband’s books and much of his other published writing. The armchair, then, marks a state of transformation in my parents’ working and personal lives and in their home, as an enduring workshop of ideas.
In 1966, we moved from our rented flat to our new house, a late 19th century two-storey terrace with room for both a dining room and a study. It remained my parents’ home for the rest of their lives and was not sold until 2015. The spacious, high-ceiling upstairs room at the front was soon furnished as a writers’ study.
Book cases graced either side of the fireplace, one with a small built-in desk for my mother to work at on her typewriter. The French doors leading on to the front verandah were shaded by heavy, satin, mustard coloured curtains. The centrepiece was the large, 19th century pedestal desk chosen by my mother. Placed in the middle of the room at a slightly raffish angle, my father savoured the room as a place to write, surrounded by bookcase-lined walls.
As he later wrote, “sitting at the desk Myfanwy had chosen for me became one of our essential ceremonies” of intellectual life together. “My writing came from a joint workshop of which she was a part. Not only the dinners and lunch parties that helped keep things going: without her emotional support and intellectual support I don’t know that I would have ‘become a writer’.”
Books that influenced my father’s writing and thinking are now displayed in beautiful glass cabinetry in the State Library. You can peruse the spines for a quick trip through 20th century ideas, global politics and history, its revolutions, art, political philosophy, sociology. Well-thumbed copies include A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by the 18th century advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, and The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies by the 20th century cultural theorist, Roland Barthes, for its critique of bourgeois culture.
Many of the books include his annotations — paper clips, discrete dots, vertical lines and squiggles — making it possible to trace some of what inspired his own social and political critique. The English translations of the writings of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, for instance, were marked up for his favourite passages on hegemony, “common sense” and the idea that we are all intellectuals. They represent, in many ways, his scholarly footnotes.
“I’ll just go to the study to look it up,” is a refrain I often heard from my parents. Rather than reconstruct their study, the artefacts in the State Library’s Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room have been chosen to continue the intellectual pursuit of conversation and ideas.
You can work at the desk, sit in the green armchair and — by application to the librarian — peruse the books and decipher the scrawls left by my father. These objects are not only tokens of two productive writing lives, but an inspiration to future generations who believe that books and ideas matter.
This week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival not only celebrates the art of writing, but the art of reading. Of course, it is difficult not to worry that this might be because the art of reading – that is, deep, critical, transformative reading – has been so radically transformed in the age of big data and Internet skimming that – along with ink and paper – it might be considered to be endangered, too.
Much of the program seems focused on the special kind of paying attention that reading demands – and its pay off in intangible commodities such as curiosity, wonder and awe. It features events that are dedicated not just to the new, but to the enduring influence of the old, in which writers have been asked to talk less about their own work, and more about the works of others that inspired them.
Deborah Adelaide talks about The Women’s Pages (2015), but also about her lifelong fascination with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights that inspired it. Frank Moorhouse talks about reading that Victorian marvel George Eliot, and the debt that his own capacious volumes featuring Edith Campbell Berry might owe to it.
Gail Jones talks about the strange excitement of reading Nabokov. Don Watson, in conversation Delia Falconer, discusses the wondrous works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Tegan Bennett Daylight brings the spotlight to bear on the wry, self-deprecating humour of the mid-twentieth century American short-form author JS Perelmen, who may well be new to festival audiences. Jonathan Franzen, in conversation with Daylight, not only talks about Purity (2015), his latest book, but also his vociferous reading life, encompassing the works of obscure and dazzling authors who are seldom read today, including, no doubt, Franzen’s long-standing infatuation with the scathing social satires of the early twentieth-century Austrian writer, Karl Kraus.
There are many different kinds of reading. The festival concentrates on the sort that brings art and life together. Artistic Director Jemma Birrell says, “A good festival, like a good book, should bring real-life benefits.“ Consequently, the program bristles with panels on the Books that Made Me, the Books that Changed Me, and the Books that Saved Me. It features a Literary Healing Room tended by bibliotherapists – that is, book doctors – who administer small doses of book buying as remedy and solace in an alienated world. (You can find these curious doctors at the School of Life in Sydney, Melbourne, and London, where they can be consulted in person or via Skype, at all hours.)
Marcel Proust, with his unsparing insight into human passions and illusions, recognised that there are “pathological circumstances” in which reading can become a sort of “curative discipline”.
But there’s something a little disquieting in the therapeutic cure. I find it odd, for example, that you can also purchase a “philosopher’s jumper” made of trendy black wool from the School of Life’s online shop – a touch overpriced at A$258.94 – in the hope that it will bestow wisdom or insight whenever you wear it. (It’s advertised as modelled on one that belonged to Martin Heidegger, which also seems an odd choice, given Heidegger was a Nazi.)
Also at the festival, philosopher Damon Young talks about the “ethics of reading” and the “virtues” that he claims reading engenders. In an era of clickbate, when articles have transformed into listicles, in which many of us struggle to read a text more than 140 characters long – and more are happy to outsource our critical capacities to a data algorithm known as Google – reading a book certainly demands something that is increasingly harder to find.
According to Young, reading has the capacity to teach us curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice, to gloss the chapters of his recent book, The Art of Reading (2016).
In Young’s model of reading, it is not the book but the reader who bring these virtues into being. He argues – as, indeed, literary scholars have argued for several decades – that it may not be the reader who writes the book, but it is the reader who completes its meaning.
It is the imagination of the reader that brings the book into existence. Without a reader, a book is just a strange pattern of black marks on a page.
It is not that Young confuses art and life. He argues,
Ordinary life has a hazy atmosphere to it, whereas language illuminates brightly and sharply.
Life, in short, is much harder to navigate.
Young’s model of reading for moral self-improvement, like the bibliotherapists’ model of reading for therapy, or the current Sydney festival’s model of reading for life, can occasionally feel a little grim and prescriptive, because they skip over the idea of reading for pleasure or plain fun.
It is often a mistake to go straight for what is said, ignoring how it is said. However tempting it may be to feel that novels contain a world complete, novelistic characters are, as Samuel Beckett unkindly said of Balzac, mere “clockwork cabbages” in comparison to real people.
Books bring solace because they provide meaning when life does not. They do this because they are aesthetically patterned in a way that the real world is not.
Sometimes it is just the happy syntax of a sentence – the way it unwinds and surprises and satisfies. In this, books can also be deceptive. The fact is, how something is said is more often than not the thing that makes the reader feel what they do.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history and future of the Mitchell Library in NSW, Australia.
Australians like to tell it as it is and in that spirit a library in Sydney has moved its Lance Armstrong books to the fiction section.
This is not the usual book review I guess, as I haven’t yet read the entire book. I have however started to read this book, which I think is now regarded as a must read on early Australian history. I have read the first 5 chapters or the first 157 pages – it is a 688 page work.
‘The Fatal Shore’ is by Robert Hughes and was first published in Great Britain by Collins Harvill in 1987. My edition is the paperback edition of 1996, published by The Harvill Press in London.
‘The Fatal Shore’ is the story of convict settlement in Australia, from the early history of transportation from England to Australia, including the steps that led to it. It describes in straight forward, matter of fact way, the plight of English convicts being sent to Botany Bay in all of its brutal reality. The reality of the picture painted by Robert Hughes removes any lingering thoughts of pioneering adventure with which the convicts may have been involved in. It is a harsh world, where the punishment dished out far exceeded the crimes involved in many, many cases.
There are individual accounts of convicts and their crimes, with detailed descriptions of the horrors they endured on a voyage to New South Wales or one of the other colonies as they were established around Australia.
It is not just a story of the convicts, it is a story of invasion, as Aboriginal Australia gave way before the steady push of colonial endeavour by the English invaders. It is the story of the red coats, of the sailors, of the governors, etc. In short, it is a history of the convict era in Australia and all that it brought with it.
I am enjoying this account of early Australian history and would recommend it to anyone who has not yet read it – especially those living in Australia. It seems to me to be a more honest account of Australia’s early history than that which we may hear about in school – if we hear much about it at all. A must read.
Today’s suggestion for changing the world was to create a directory of local community events/groups. This suggestion is something that intrigues me a little. Why? Well, it would be interesting to know just how many groups are operating in and around Tea Gardens in New South Wales, Australia.
I can think of quite a number just off the top of my head – so a directory for Tea Gardens would be quite large. It is certainly something I could do – but it could be quite time consuming to do properly. One never knows, I may do this in the future at some point.
But not today.