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This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

PART 1: THE iPad

Not a bookshelf but a machine

So Steve Jobs from the Apple corporation has launched the iPad.  Good for him, is all I can say, though I can say something else, which is this: what a load of complete bollocks.  In covering this ridiculously hyped event my city’s local TV news bulletin took the angle that the iPad is the first great e-reader (no doubt they took this angle because per capita Canberra apparently reads more books than anywhere else in Australia).  And based on what can be found on Apple’s iPad website the angle is justified: beneath a picture of the gadget with an image of a bookshelf is this claim: ‘The iBooks app is a great new way to read and buy books.  Download the free app from the App store and buy everything from classics to best-sellers from the built-in iBookstore.  Once you’ve bought a book, it’s displayed on your Bookshelf.  Just tap it to start reading.’ A couple of things with this quote: one, Apple’s habit of referring to ‘app’ is damn annoying; two, the capitalised ‘B’ in iBookstore and Bookshelf, as if they now own the word ‘book’.

Being someone who loves to read, in fact a day doesn’t end well without some fiction in my head, I took an interest in this claim.  Well, a kind of interest; actually I got pretty angry pretty fast.  This is just another ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ toy that does a million things that we could always do.  At the risk of sounding like the greatest Luddite still walking the earth, the book – and by that I mean the thing with paper pages between cardboard covers – is a perfect invention: it does exactly what’s required of it.  The cover tells you what’s inside (to a certain degree anyway), and the pages take you on a journey.

Writing, especially fiction, is magic and this to me is the appeal of the book: how can this thing, which essentially is nothing more than ink on bits of flattened tree, take me on such a journey?  How is it that I end up caring about the characters when it’s all just tricks and lies on paper?  How is it that sometimes I’m so moved I have to go for a long, long walk to recover?  And then there’s the actual physical action of reading: the stillness.  You sit up in bed or lie on a couch or sun-lounge and you’re motionless (and absorbed) as this thing in your hands transports you to a completely different place and often a completely different time.  It really is magic.  But stories are complex, and story-making is complex (I reckon it’s the hardest thing), and there’s something wonderful when this complexity is presented in the simplest way imaginable.

Books don’t need extra buttons, they don’t need batteries.  In the scheme of things books aren’t burdensome to carry.  And if you’re going very far it’s rarely a hassle to pack a number of story companions.

Some Kindle thing

Despite what Apple and the other corporations in this e-reader racket want us to believe, there’s simply no way to improve on the design of the book.

Many compare what’s happening to reading books to what has been happening to listening to music over the last decade or so, but these contexts are totally different.  Personally, the ultimate way to listen to a great album – say, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, or The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, or Silent Shout by The Knife – is on vinyl, in my loungeroom, and most likely with a cheeky vodka somewhere very close by.  (And before you think I’m some crusty old audiophile I only bought my record player a couple of years ago.)  On vinyl, music is big, dynamic, multidimensional, warm, and, dare I say it, human.  But, as much as I love listening to music in this way, it’s a bit hard to strap onto my back the record player, the amp, the pre-amp and four speakers when I go for a walk with the dog.  So I have a nifty little mp3 player, not an iPod mind you, just your humble, no-brand-worth-mentioning mp3 player.  It’s tiny, much smaller than the Walkman, and it doesn’t skip like my old Discman used to do.  Plus I can load up a number of albums, so if I’m not in the mood for one band I can easily swap over to another, or even switch to a homemade best-of, like the personal Portishead mix  I’ve been listening to for the last few months (all songs burnt, might I add, off the CDs I own).  So in this context technology has made music transportable as well as, to a certain extent, self-managed.

But reading is a different kettle of fish.  You have to commit to a book, particularly a novel.  I choose a novel based on where I’m going and for how long I’ll be there; often I choose a novel to reflect what’s happening in my life – being a slow reader I know that I’ll be investing days if not weeks in a book.  For example, in November last year the partner and I went to Vanuatu (for a wedding, of all things) and I specifically chose Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book because it would be a big read, a complex read, and I needed this space and time to lose myself in the work (and lose myself I did – it’s a terrific story and an extraordinary piece of imagination).  What’s more, I read this novel in airport lounges, in planes, beside lagoons, beside the resort pool, in the resort gardens, in our room.  And this invention, the book, performed perfectly – it did exactly what I asked of it, no more, no less.  And the book will continue to perform perfectly; it will continue to do exactly what’s asked of it, no more or less.

What irks me the most about the iPad is that it is so obviously consumer manipulation – in terms of the e-reader function at least, it is saying this will be better for you, more convenient, when it so clearly won’t be either of these things.  If anyone can tell me what I’m missing, do share, but until then I – along with quite a few others, I’m relieved to report – say this: Gutenberg got the book right, let’s leave reading there.

PART 2: JD SALINGER

Interesting that in the same week the Apple corporation launched it’s iPad thing, one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers JD Salinger died, on 27 January.  And he was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers because of just one book, The Catcher in the Rye. I’d not read the book until last year (rather embarrassing I know, especially when I, like the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, was private-school educated and didn’t do that well in that particular environment).  But it did have an impact on me: one mighty, memorable character, someone with attitude as well as flaws, someone who wanted to buck up against the context in which he’d been placed, which is a trait we never fail to admire.  Combined with this, the narration is aimed squarely at the reader; it’s a surprisingly intimate reading experience.

But what I’ve always found fascinating about Salinger as a writer is that he wrote nothing else of significance and spent much of his life a recluse, refusing to correspond with journalists or even fans.  Such mystery.  Was Salinger a flash in the pan, did he just have an amazing stroke of luck?  Was he not brave enough to start or finish another book?  Did he fear failure (reports suggest he certainly was very sensitive to criticism, but then again most artists are)?  Did he write other manuscripts and were they just as good if not better but simply refused for the manuscripts to be made public?  How tantalising if this is the case.  Or did he just lose himself in his own legend?  Was the mystique manufactured to keep himself in the front of the public’s mind because he had no new stories to do this for him?

Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame is similar in that she too only ever wrote one great book.  Perhaps once a writer has created something as perfect as Catcher or Mockingbird there’s no chance of topping it so you might as well quit while you’re ahead.  Or it could be because the writer has put every fibre of their being into their creation that there’s nothing left to create something else.  We’ll never know – Salinger has taken his motivations not to publish again to his grave, and it’s highly likely that Harper Lee will do the same.  But there’s something appealing in the way these great writers have approached their careers – it could be said they just gave up after creating one great thing.  This ability to give up, of course, is assisted by stratospheric sales of their works – Catcher was still selling 200,000 copies per year and publishers claim that to date Mockingbird has sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide – but the fact that these writers ended up resting for the remainder of their lives seems to make us revere them even more.

Perhaps these books were miracles?  I’m just so glad I have both in my library, on the bookshelf invisibly marked In The Event Of An Emergency Do All You Can To Rescue These Puppies.

With all confidence I can report to you that I’ll never have The Catcher in the Rye (or To Kill a Mockingbird) stored on the hard-disk of some bogus iPad contraption.  It will always have a physical presence in my house.

Because books reinforce my soul.

Computers might make my life easier – including being able to post these words on this blog – but they can never reinforce my soul.

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