It’s ridiculous, but I get a bit anxious when people ask me what I’m reading. It feels like a test that I am destined to fail. I marvel at friends and acquaintances who seem to consume fat, serious books almost as often as I eat breakfast. When do they find the time, I wonder? I obviously waste my life watching too much TV and walking the dog. It leaves me feeling morally inadequate.
I feel like I should have more structure and system to my reading; that I should be across recent releases by big name novelists, engaged with important new works of social and cultural criticism, and at least have some passing familiarity with popular science—the sort of books that tell you how your brain re-builds itself or why big data is going to shape the future. And it goes without saying that my current reading should be building on a solid appreciation of great works of the past: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Melville, Woolf etc. etc.
Truth be told though, my reading is hit and miss. Perhaps serendipitous is a more generous word. I recently read philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book on Anger and Forgiveness, for example, because it was chosen for a philosophy book club that I rashly joined. (I say rashly because I am hosting the next meeting and am now struggling to come up with a suitable text for our discussion.) Nussbaum prompted me to reflect on why we get angry and to ask what anger is good for. Her conclusion is not much, apart from potentially alerting us to the need for action to right a wrong. Anger, she says, generally takes one of two objects. It either takes what she calls ‘the road of payback’, which is pointless, since the original harm, whatever it was, cannot be undone by inflicting like harm in return, or it takes ‘the road of status’, with the intent of down-ranking the wrongdoer by some like pain or humiliation, so that the victim’s injured status is restored or enhanced. As she argues, however, an excessive focus on relative status is morally problematic and ‘not something to be encouraged in self or others.’
What to do with our anger then? According to Nussbaum we must transition anger towards a positive future purpose. Her role model here is Nelson Mandela who focussed not on payback for the crimes of apartheid ‘but on the creation of a shared future.’ I’ll try to remember that next time I’m riding my bike and get harassed into the kerb by an impatient driver.
Some of my other recent reading has been shaped by visits to my publisher. I never leave the Text offices in William Street empty handed, because a staff member always asks whether I’d like some books from the storeroom. I presume this a courtesy extended to all writers in the Text stable and it is a welcome, kind gesture, though it does raise my reading anxieties because I feel like I should make an intelligent choice and I don’t always know what to ask for.
Last time the problem was solved for me when publisher Michael Heyward asked me how long it was since I’d read Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. I was tempted to answer, ‘Oh at least a decade or two,’ but owned up to a complete gap in my education. Now, half way through, I see Melbourne through new eyes and see ‘featurism’ on every corner.
On an earlier visit I took away another Text classic—Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower. I was prompted to ask for it because I had just seen Text boss Michael Heyward interviewing Harrower at the Melbourne Writers Festival. It was a good, if uncomfortable, choice: the domestic claustrophobia of the novel is compelling and confronting. As a study of intimate psychological control and everyday abuse it struck me as timeless.
After a meeting a few months back, I asked for the collected works of local writer Jock Serong, including an uncorrected proof of his latest novel On the Java Ridge. I had got to know Jock a little at the Perth Writers Festival and liked him immediately. We had certain things in common, apart from a publisher, including an interest in surfing, which Jock does properly and writes about seriously, and which I have recently taken up (another distraction from reading). We met again at Adelaide Writers Week, where I enjoyed listening to Jock in conversation under the trees and spread canvas of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden. Jock also invited me to join him in a lunchtime event at the Great Escape Bookshop in Aireys Inlet in October. For all these reasons, I was keen to read his books.
I began with The Rules of Backyard Cricket, with its conceit of a narrator locked in the boot of a car and travelling towards his imminent execution up the Geelong freeway, a road I travel often. While I am not a cricket tragic, I am interested enough in the game to engage with that part of the story (it reminded me of Malcolm Knox’s crime and cricket novel, A Private Man) and as a younger sibling, I connected with the theme of brotherly love and intense rivalry. Next I read Jock’s first novel, Quota, and found its weary, cynical lawyer and the intrigues of abalone poaching and drug smuggling in a troubled coastal town even more engaging. Then I started On the Java Ridge, but had to put it down only a few pages in. It felt a bit close to the bone. Jock uses one of the most difficult and contentious issues in Australian life—the treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat—as a fictional subject. It is painful, difficult territory and a topic that I have reported on and written about for around about twenty years. Using this unhealed wound in our national psyche as material for a novel seemed a dangerous high-wire act. I think I stopped reading because I did not want to see Jock fall.
Instead I turned to Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time, which had done a lengthy stint on the bedside table after my mother gave it to me for Christmas. Barnes re-imagines the conflicted and morally ambiguous inner world of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer whose music I love and whose life I have always found intriguing. Reading his novel reminded me that On the Java Ridge is fiction: if Barnes can channel one of the world’s greatest composers, then why shouldn’t Jock Serong channel the perspective of a nine-year-old refugee girl called Roya? I resumed reading and was soon hooked. Not everything about the novel is successful or convincing, including the character of Roya and the strange inclusion of a pet chicken. But as a political thriller, the novel races along and, while fiction, prompts the question: what are we capable of as a nation?
Peter Mares is a contributing editor with Inside Story magazine and the author of Not Quite Australian: how temporary migration is changing the nation