Confessions of a bookworm (Published in the Geelong Advertiser on 15 December 2010, p. 28, as ‘Shelves till buckle under a book or two’.)
By Roy Hay
Another year, another swag of books bought and read or tempting me from the shelf, and I was supposed to be getting rid of some of my collection rather than adding to it. My wife fears that when I pop off she will be left with the chore of disposing of them all. My daughter-in-law has expressed an interest in having a library, but I don’t think she quite comprehends what an eclectic pile of stuff I have accumulated over the years. Much of it is completely worthless in this new world of electronic books and there only so many car boot sales and charity bins which will take well-thumbed second-hand tomes. Booksellers don’t want to know about anything other than rare first editions and scarce incunabula, that is printed material produced before 1500 at the dawn of printing.
This year has seen an outpouring of political biography and autobiography, especially by recently replaced national leaders including Tony Blair, John Howard and George Bush, all engaged in getting their retaliation in first before their colleagues and the historians start to dissect their careers. Blair at least writes with style and verve, but Howard and Bush are pedestrian and unreflective. Blair reveals far more about himself, so that you have a greater understanding of what drove him, as well as further ammunition for criticism, if that is what you seek.
This week I received Beyond the Crash, by Gordon Brown, Blair’s right-hand man as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then successor as Prime Minister of Britain. Given the many critical references to him in Blair’s A Journey, you could have forgiven Brown for penning his riposte, but this instead is a closely reasoned analysis of the global financial crisis and how to prevent its recurrence. Earlier this year, before the British general election, I read Vince Cable’s autobiography and his The Storm: The World Economic Crisis and What It Means, which covered much the same ground, so it will be interesting to see how the futurology of Brown and his most trenchant economic critic compare. Cable, a Liberal-Democrat, is now responsible for industry and innovation in the new coalition government in the United Kingdom.
I can’t pretend that all my reading was on politics and economics. I caught up with another volume of Clive James’s life story, on his years in television, entitled The Blaze of Obscurity. James is one of Australia’s most prolific and best writers and he always teaches me something about the craft of the enterprises in which he is engaged. In this case just a simple piece of advice he received early in his career—to aim to write in paragraphs rather than sentences—is the sort of jog to your elbow you need whether you are writing journalism or something more lengthy.
Last year we started on Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels and The Broken Shore. This year we read Truth which is deserving of the accolades it has received, though my wife eventually had to settle down and produce a cheat sheet with a list of all the characters and their characteristics in order to keep track of what is going on. We might think about putting that up on our website for anyone else who wants to finish the book but is drowning in the cast list. Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter is not his best thriller, but it is still the work of a master and it has a much shorter list of dramatis personae. Val McDermid is pushing a particular line in Trick of the Dark, while Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy is a bit disappointing in requiring just too much suspension of disbelief to swallow the key points of the plot.
John Harms and Paul Daffey’s Football Almanac for 2010 is another tour de force, thanks to a group of writers who bring quirky and interesting perspectives to every game of this year’s footy season. For the round-ball code, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Why England Lose and other Football Phenomena Explained is a superbly entertaining use of economic and statistical data to challenge much conventional wisdom.
Waiting on the shelves for the holiday period are Judy Dench and Michael Caine’s autobiographies, Bill Bryson on Shakespeare and the Peter Temple backlist. If I can end on a plug, and you are looking for a Christmas present, then David Wyllie’s The Edinburgh Conspiracy is a good page-turner, which we have just published ourselves. I keep telling the author that J K Rowling started with an Australian edition!