Just back from Sydney where I addressed the Australian Booksellers Association at their annual dinner in Sydney by the sea at Manly. Here’s what I said:
Thanks so much for the pleasure and the privilege of sitting here with you tonight and speaking to you. I feel I already know many of you – I’ve had many enjoyable evenings invited to speak about my work or someone else’s work in your shops; I’ve had phone calls from you after programs of mine as people have come into your shops asking about a particular book they’ve heard about; but what you probably don’t know is that I once spend a university summer working in a bookshop – the Swinburne University bookshop before it was a university. To paraphrase John F Kennedy in Berlin – Ich bin eine Bookshop Worker.
I served the customers, unpacked the books, and secreted myself at lunchtime in the stock room trying to read. I remember feeling really annoyed that I kept having to stop and attend to the customers.
It turned out that this was the least of my worries. My problem was that I was a University of Melbourne student, and had found the job on a student employment noticeboard at my university. When the Swinburne students found out that their very own institution had bypassed them, they called a strike.
I was denounced as a scab and there was a demonstration against the shop. I could only agree with them. There was a photo of me and the demo in the student newspaper and then the end of the summer came and that was the end of my book shop career, but not the end of my romance with Books.
Which is what my new book is about.
By the Book – A reader’s Guide to Life traces an intellectual and emotional journey for me from the first books I could read, to the books that my mother handed over in her silent education of me conducted from the couch. She read books. She gave them to me to read. She didn’t discuss them with me. From the contents of the books I read I begun to form a picture of her life and her interests, but in reading them again, I realised how a misreading of many of them formed my idea of how the world worked. And had a tremendous influence on what I thought, what I thought I knew, and the directions I took.
I’ve had conversations over the years with some of the best writers in the world, and when people speak about their introduction to reading, which nearly always determines their impulse to writing, many will talk of a local library or librarian as the source of their life-long love of books.
For English novelist Jeanette Winterson, whose adoptive parents were fundamentalist Christians who owned only six books, all of them about the Bible, books from the library were her path to the outside world. But everything she brought home from the library was vetted by her mother, and she began to hide books under her bed. She was sprung with a copy of Women in Love, and her mother knew enough to know that D.H. Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer.
Her mother threw all the books out of her bedroom window and set fire to them in the backyard in front of the outside toilet.
“ I often think” Jeanette told me “ that the reason why tyrants hate books, and how they do book-burning sessions regularly and book-banning, is not so much what the books contain..[but] because reading itself is an act of free will. Nothing can come between you and a book — there’s no surveillance camera, there’s no little bugging device from the CIA that can get into that space between your mind and the page — so it’s terrifying. And it does mean independence of mind and spirit; nobody knows what you’re thinking at that time.”
Writers were lucky to have the right book at the right time. Sometimes these were given to them to read by teachers, sometimes by librarians and sometimes by people like yourselves, those who love books so much that they are willing to rent a space, pay for shelves, buy books in and indeed curate your shops in ways that tell of your need to share good books with others who want to buy them.
When I worked for the ABC that was my driver too – to look at the books that were being published all over the world, to be mindful of all the ways people came to them – for fun, for pleasure, for self-improvement, for solace, for deepening understanding – and to try and read the best of all the different kinds of books there are, in order to introduce them to others.
You can never know what book when will change a person’s life. When I was eleven I was reading a compendium of famous women that I had taken out of the library – Cleopatra, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc – the night my direction was plotted by the short biography of Polish born physicist and chemist Marie Curie. It was winter, I was wearing a cosy nightie done up to the neck and the thought slowly dawned on me that this woman with fair curly hair like mine and a blouse buttoned up to a high necked collar was, like my parents, Polish by birth, and that being Polish didn’t mean that you worked, liked my parents, from dawn to dusk in clothing factories or at the treadle machine late at night in our kitchen.
None of the immigrants in my parent’s circle had professional jobs; one or two, it was rumoured, had gone to university for a few years before the movements of history has sent them to concentration camps or to refuges of various kinds and then to their lives in Melbourne, here at the end of the world. Tailors, furriers, milk-bar owners, greengrocers and truck-drivers, they all had ambitions for their Australian born children. The boys would be doctors, lawyers, accountants or maybe architects, and girls like me might be teachers before we got married, had children and helped our husbands in their businesses. Not that it was spelled out to me like this, but a child sees what the world is like from the confines of the family, and we didn’t exactly have far horizons to survey. Except, of course, for the books I could read.
That little chapter about Marie Curie set me on a course to be a scientist and for the first years of my adult life I mucked about in laboratories, but found I didn’t have the patience to persist with a life in science. When I discovered journalism I started with science journalism and even named my first program on community radio “The Marie Curiosity Show” after that book about famous women, read on that night long long ago.
Since I left the ABC, I’ve had all kinds of people coming up to me shyly, telling me they miss the show I did. And nothing touches me more than the people who say that they never read books much, but when they heard me talk about them, or heard the authors speaking about them, they’d have a go at reading a book that they’d never before try to tackle. That tickled me, touched me, much like I know that you feel too, when a book you’ve recommended to someone touches the spot.
I’ve learned about love from books, and about politics. And not from reading books devoted to those subjects but from the way you read novels, letting the story and the characters wash over you, and infiltrate you in a myriad of ways.
I’ve learned about life from the ancient romans, not just about what Caligula liked to wear or about how Pliny the Elder tried to rescue people from the eruption of Vesuvius, but from Ovid about the best way to seduce someone at a dinner at which their husband is attending as well, or about how a woman shouldn’t let a man see her getting ready for a night out.
As has been the case all my life, whenever I had a question, or even before I could formulate one, a perfect book arrived to offer a myriad of answers. But the perfect book has to be written and published and available to be bought in shops like yours. And I know that this is a time of great disruption and we’re all not sure what will happen with the digital world. But already we are finding that while it’s true people can read all kinds of things on blogs and other places, they are becoming thirsty for the kinds of things that matter. That are curated and moderated by a trusted hand. That are written by people who know something and not just people who are sitting in their bedrooms trawling the internet and then opining. Pictures of people’s lunch will begin not to be interesting, and then if we can all hang on during the ride, the readers will seek out those who might be able to help them look in the directions that will serve their interests.
Since I’ve been a full time writer, I’ve adored thinking about the books that made me, and writing about what I’ve made of them. I hope you’ll enjoy my journey when you read about it in November and thank you all for the love and dedication you have given to books in your own lives.