Our prized 1943 edition of the Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language—a book about the size and weight of a car battery—does not contain the term ‘photocopier’. The almost as cumbersome World Book Dictionary of 1973, however, provides definitions of both photocopier and ‘Xerox’, the corporation that in the intervening three decades developed the first office copying machines. Also included is a virtual advertisement masquerading as an example of usage: Microfilm takes weeks and is costly. Positive photostat takes time. What about Xerox? It is easy to imagine an 18-year-old today being totally flummoxed by that advice.
My first encounter with a photocopier came at exactly that age. It was 1985 and I’d just secured a clerical position that would take me all of nine months to tire of. But one good thing about the job was that sometimes in that tiny office, which was actually a converted weatherboard house, early in the morning before my comrades in government servitude arrived, I would photocopy something of interest: a few pages out of a library book, perhaps, or a story from a borrowed magazine.
To this day I rate furtive copying as one of the few advantages of being tethered to a workplace, though now this more commonly takes the form of furtive printing. With academic libraries in decay—one I frequent recently jettisoned an excellent collection of books on architecture to allow for a floorspace populated by bean-bags—the printer has become indispensable to anyone wanting to liberate chapters, articles and other curiosities from the eternal limbo of cyberspace. Our small apartment houses several boxes of these printed or copied texts, through which I often trawl in search of some half-recalled literary remnant. In doing so, I inevitably emerge with a clutch of auxiliary (re)reading to work through.
The most recent such excursion turned out the following: Colm Tóibín’s 2009 London Review of Books piece on John Cheever (one of a host of memorable quotes: ‘Cheever was good at blaming people; so skilled did he become at it that he sometimes went as far as blaming himself’); the chapter ‘Indigestion: a Rhetoric of Reviewing’ from Meaghan Morris’s 1988 book The Pirate’s Fiancé (an excellent discussion on the practice of criticism); a 1982 interview with (non)musician Brian Eno by Kristine McKenna of the long-defunct Musician magazine, containing many insights on the former Roxy Music member, Talking Heads producer and author of such pioneering albums as No Pussyfooting and Another Green World; Robert Walser’s 1919 short story ‘The Street ’, a terrifically paranoid descendant of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’; a New York Times front page dated 20 August 1977, featuring a story on the departure that day of the Voyager interstellar spacecraft alongside an obituary for Grouch Marx (the juxtaposition always made me fancy that Groucho left earth on that very rocket).
Then there’s Faith Oxenbridge’s 2014 Elizabeth Jolley Prize shortlisted story ‘The Art of Life’ and John Scott’s 2011 Peter Porter Prize winning ‘Four Sonnets’ (stapled together for no immediately obvious reason, other than that both are near-perfect); ‘December 22, 1940’, the opening chapter of Jay Martin’s Nathaniel West: The Art of His Life (West, a marvellous writer but notoriously bad driver, was killed along with his wife in a car crash on that date; he was, some claim, returning home to attend the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald); an Overland article by Thomas Caldwell, where he defends Australian cinema circa 2009 from the ‘contrived indignation and philistine pettiness’ of conservative critics; and Richard Taruskin’s 2007 New Republic essay ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music Against its Devotees’ (best line: ‘the discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible’).
While this habit of rehabilitating undervalued or forsaken fragments works to enhance my reading, it also forestalls it—at least insofar as that which demands more sustained effort is concerned. Presently there are two books by my bedside being consumed at a turtle’s pace due to these and other diversions. One is Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, obtained after seeing a friend—the brilliant writer, poet and editor Felicity Plunkett—interview the author on stage at the Queensland Poetry Festival. A strikingly original verse-novel shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize, Robertson’s is one of those very rare books that I commenced re-reading straight after finishing it the first time. The other being stuttered through is Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution (2008), a study of Hollywood based around the complicated histories of the Academy Award ‘Best Picture’ nominees of 1968: In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate and Doctor Doolittle. (The latter film, much the least creditable of the five, nonetheless links to some of the best tales, from instances of star Rex Harrison’s unsurpassable vanity to the production being stalled for months while handlers tried to teach a chimpanzee how to cook bacon and eggs.)
If my response to a seemingly straightforward question so far has produced little other than a jumble of detours, digressions and obfuscations, that is not just down to erratic consumption patterns and a preference for reading as montage over the standard finish-one-book, begin-another approach. It is also because I rate why we read as a far weightier matter to dwell on. At one level, reading presumably functions much like the occupation of the protagonist in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, whose life ‘spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving’. That is, reading—like writing, if one suffers from that particular compulsion—helps us avoid becoming overwhelmed by the fact of our mortality.
Even more importantly, though, reading is a testing ground for language: wide reading allows us to hone our vocabularies, recalibrate our worldviews and (hopefully) deepen our understanding of those living beyond our immediate purview. Richard Rorty once said that only sentences can be true, a neat way of reminding us that as cultures are fashioned out of language, we ought to spend a lot more time thinking about how that language is used. In modern-day Australia, the power of language is made most obvious by the persistent ability of simplistic catchphrases to derail public discourse. The twenty-first century equivalent of ‘four-legs-good, two-legs-bad’, these ideological word blankets operate effectively to smother dissent and dissuade self-examination.
Think, for instance, how the spurious terms ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics’ become truncheons with which to beat back insurgents against entrenched white patriarchy. Or how the ‘saving lives at sea’ mantra works to paint those who couldn’t give two hoots about refugees as staunch humanists. Or how the expression ‘energy security’ has been incorporated into everyday dialogue in a premeditated way to suppress the compounding problem of anthropogenic global warming, diverting attention away from the recklessness of corporate polluters and their advocates and toward base concerns about comfort and prosperity in the here and now. Or how, on the same issue, the blithely accepted phrase ‘once in x years weather event’ further obscures the reality that as far as climate-driven disasters are concerned, the only relevant one-off historical episode is the period of rampant industrialisation that we are currently prolonging.
But to hell with all that: even as the scheming apologists for extreme capitalism steer us ever deeper into the ecological mire, for now there is still reading to redeem us—still new examples of the use of language to discover, examples that stimulate thinking rather than suppress it. Delving back into one of those boxes, I find a crinkled photocopy of the lyrics to the song ‘Broken Household Appliance National Forest’ by American band Grandaddy, from the 2000 album The Sophtware Slump. Just a few lines of their amalgam of post-millennial wonderment and despair says more about our plundering of the earth than the bulk of the shifty politicians and commentators who’ve followed:
Meadows resemble showroom floors/
Owls fly out of oven doors/
Stream banks are lined with vacuum bags/
Flowers reside with filthy rags/
A family of deer were happy that/
The clearing looked like a laundromat.
Dean Biron teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent fragments have appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Metro Magazine, The Conversation and The Guardian.