World Book Day, April 23rd
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”
Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life
If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.
I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.
No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.
“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”
I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.
I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!
I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.
The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.
“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.
I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.
I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.
I read about grief, illness, feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.
I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.
The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.
I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.
How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?
And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure. The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!
I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!
When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.
- To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
- What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
- Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?
Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind.
They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Charles William Eliot
Five books I’m Glad I Still Own
A Patch of Blue
I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author, Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.
The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love.
The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.
The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.
The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.
This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.
In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,
“Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…“
When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.
Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.
Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.
In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.
Crime and Punishment
Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.
I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?
The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition.
The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.
There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)
Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.
The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.
This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.
Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…
Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.
The Women’s Room
Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.
This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.
The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?
It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.
The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.
I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.
I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.
No Great Mischief
In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances.
It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.
The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.
As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?
The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.
The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.
No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.
A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.
“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”
Clarence Shepard Day