Panel speech, Adelaide Writers' Week, 2010
Panel speech, Adelaide Writers' Week, 2010
Being asked to talk about one’s reading is like being asked to talk about one’s life. Where do you begin? It’s so large, and so intimate, a subject.
I remember the moment of learning to read incredibly vividly. I was kneeling on the prickly grey living room carpet, about three feet from the heater and a foot from the kitchen door, wearing woollen stockings and a little pleated skirt (I sound like Milly Molly Mandy), staring and staring at the book on the floor in front of me which was about Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane would do things like run and skip and they had a dog who would also run and jump.
But what I remember most was the desperate will to be able to read, to understand. When I finally made it out, the word was “the”.
This remains one of the most powerful moments of my life – it was like staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures, where one image recedes and another, hitherto hidden image rises out of the picture, and you suddenly see it. It was like stepping through a hole in the universe. I recognised right away the sheer magnitude of the moment, and I knew in my little five year old heart that my world had changed forever, and that this was it – this moment of comprehension, after all the waiting and straining, was what finally would open up the world for me. I still get shivers thinking about it.
When I was a child there were books everywhere in our house, but they were all kinds of books, not what you would call necessarily good books. My father’s reading consisted of rows and rows of Isaac Asimov sci-fi thrillers, blue-spined Pelicans on topics like nuclear fission or the formation of the Westminster system, and large fat tomes on the theology of the Catholic church. My mother was the literary fiction reader, and by her bed was always something by Doris Lessing or Thornton Wilder or Thomas Keneally.
I wrote about my parents’ bookshelves in The Children, actually – when the adult children come home and stand running a finger along those spines; the books are one of the great signifiers of their childhood. While, like all of you, I’ve been a reader all my life, in a strange way I feel I’ve only become my real reading self in the past five or ten years, as I have let go of the idea that one should read this or that, or worse, that one must keep up. When I was younger I felt that reading involved some kind of measure of one’s moral worth. But now I couldn’t care less about that kind of rubbish, and I couldn’t care less about keeping up with prize lists, the latest Ian McEwan or the newest hot young literary discovery.
It’s not that I won’t read those books, but to me it is only after the kerfuffle surrounding this or that book has faded away, can my relationship with it become a properly private affair. It’s allowing the space for the true intimacy reading – it’s just the book, and me. Sometimes I think of it as leaving a book to cure for a few years.
The other day I came across a quote by the American writer Christopher Morley, who apparently once said, “There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love.”
This rang very true to me, and I have realised gradually that the books I fall most passionately in love with tend to be those discovered by chance. They are the kind of books that I feel most grateful for, because they could so easily have been missed.
I want to very briefly mention three of these books that I have discovered in the past couple of years, books that you may not know about because they are old, and possibly out of print, and that I found by chance, and that therefore, to me, are somehow more precious.
The first is Jessica Anderson’s The Impersonators. You will know Jessica Anderson’s classic Tirra Lirra by the River, but I found this one in an op shop, having never heard of it. I hope that’s just my ignorance; I should have known of it because it won the Miles Franklin in 1980 – but that’s when I was probably still reading some rubbishy teen fiction book I can’t now recall.
The book is a portrait of a divided family – and a divided city, one sliced up by real estate and class. And Australians don’t write much about class, as we’re supposedly so classless – but this novel really shows that to be a lie. The Impersonators is about the silent warfare that’s possible in a marriage, about how material envy and discontent can leach a life of meaning, and about a mother’s bewildered love for her two children, who grow up away from her, and become lost to her not only geographically but to the deeper foreignness of a different social class. And beneath all this is the malaise of Australians who love their home but are grief-stricken by its politics.
The second book is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I am a latecomer to Stegner, but this novel has become one of my favourite books. It’s about a long friendship between two couples, spanning the 1930s to the 70s in America. Friendship between couples is not often portrayed, and certainly not as piercingly as in this portrait of two long marriages, and the grip each has over the other. Crossing to Safety is about how friendship can be both life-giving and life-draining, and it’s particularly about the dominance of one charismatic, exceptional, difficult woman named Charity, over her friends and her husband.
The last book is a jewel. It’s called The Element of Lavishness, and it is a collection of forty years of letters between the American writer William Maxwell and the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. I love reading letters, especially writers’ letters, and this collection is really the chronicle of a love affair – not a sexual one, they were both happily ensconced with the loves of their lives, but this is a love affair about words. I bought it because I loved William Maxwell after discovering his collected stories, All the Days and Nights, but I soon discovered that in this book it’s Sylvia who really shines. One of the things I love about letters as opposed to biographies is their discursive intimacy and their domesticity, and some brilliant writing which often seems more enjoyable for the fact they are such throwaway remarks. And Sylvia is very funny.
Perhaps I am also so taken with these books because reading them feels like stretching the hand of friendship through time, to the writer.
Thanks for listening.