Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Books of Our Lives

I don't know about you lovely readers, but we're very fond of books in our family. Newspapers too. But we're really fond of books.

My parents, who were both schoolteachers, force-fed us books from birth. I'm so glad they did. My frugal mother encouraged us to borrow them from the library because they were free. We borrowed piles. Piles. They used to topple over each other around the house, their aged pages bent from borrowings over the years. I always received library fines because I forgot to return them. Or perhaps I didn't want to? I even loved the smell. Old books. They should bottle that scent.

I still miss those cardboard pockets in the front for the library cards. Remember those? The Browne System. Seems centuries ago. Even Wikipedia didn't have an entry for the Browne System until recently. I'm not sure if that's ironic or not?

Such is the love of literature in our family that it's no wonder I became an author. I couldn't get away from books. A new book is my idea of A Good Time. (Writing them is a different story, but I won't bother you with my personal issues.) Ironically, my partner hates books. I've been trying to get him to read Hemingway's Boat, but he looks as me as if I've offered him a dirty handkerchief. I explained that it's about fishing, and hunting, and manly pursuits, but he's not convinced. "It's quite thick?" he says, doubtfully. He's very clever, but he obviously didn't get it from books.

(On a little aside, I was chatting to a head librarian at a literary breakfast last week. She said they had 40 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, and 1200 people on the waiting list. Does anybody else think this is disturbing?)

At the moment, I'm writing a book about Picnic at Hanging Rock, the haunting Australian novel about the disappearance of a group Edwardian schoolgirls at the turn of the century. Hubster tries to be supportive by offering cynical helpful suggestions. "You could organise a bloggers' tour of Hanging Rock?" he says. "The Where-Is-Miranda Tour? People could be given the novel, and a GPS. Some of them may also disappear, of course. That might be awkward."

He's not read Picnic at Hanging Rock. But that doesn't stop his attempts at being a witty literary critic. Everyone's a critic now, it seems. Even those who don't read.

If, like some people, you have an aversion to anything with paper, a title and a spine, I'd like to help. Really. Let's call it therapy. Here are some beautiful books. Books that will make you think, and linger on pages, and even cry over lines. You may even read them twice. You may even get a library fine.

These are the books that have defined my life. Have you ever thought about the books that have defined yours?

John Steinbeck | Travels With Charley In Search of America

Half a century ago, John Steinbeck set off on The Great American Road Trip, travelling along the bumpy back roads in a nostalgic effort to find freedom, fulfilment and meaning. Heavy with the weariness and cynicism that comes with age and life, he was intent on searching for the America he remembered from his childhood, and perhaps also for his soul. Steinbeck’s expedition, which eventually became the book Travels With Charley in Search of America, would end up being one of his last. He was dying, and, according to his son Thom, he knew he was dying, and he went out to his country "to say goodbye".

Half a century later, Travels With Charley is still one of the most moving travel books I've ever read. It is the journey many of us wish we had the courage to take: the journey some of us find the courage to do, even if, like Steinbeck, we know at the outset our journey may not end the way we would like it to. I first read it when I travelled across America on my own road trip, to find my own soul. I now re-read it every year. And each time it resonates in an unexpectedly profound way. We are all on a lifelong pursuit to find happiness, quiet horizons, harmony and a place to feel at home. Sometimes we find them. Other times it takes a circuitous route to realize, like Steinbeck and his dog Charley, they might have been back where we started, all along.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
Few books move me to tears. This required an entire tissue box. It's an epistolary tale, a novel of letters between a book editor and the people she meets on the island of Guernsey after the war has destroyed their idyll. But it's more than just a collection of lovely lines. It's an ode to books. And to people who love them. That's why I cherish it. The truly tragic thing though is that its author, Mary Ann Shaffer, died before the book achieved success. She was an editor, a librarian, and a bookshop assistant. This was her first novel. I hope that, wherever she is, she knows how much her small novel has moved so many readers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Many years ago, I attended a girls' school, where I met a girl who became a close friend. One year, she invited me back to her family's beautiful house for Easter. While there, she told me that her great-grandmother had gone to a girl's school too – with the author Joan Lindsay. She also told me that her great-grandmother had once told her that Joan's novel was true. Or a surprisingly significant part of it, anyway. 

Since then, I've always been fascinated by this book, which has become one of Australia's most famous novels. 

A few years ago, I started researching the background behind it. Three years on, I've finished writing my own take on the tale. Some of it is indeed true. But what is really haunting is the story behind it all. It involves the history of Hanging Rock. And what happened there a century ago.

Last week, I met a girl at a literary breakfast. A spiritual soul. She took me aside and quietly told me she knew I'd been profoundly affected by the book. It's true. Our lives have been overshadowed by the things I've discovered. When I'm finished editing it, which will be soon, I want to go away and wash the ghosts off somewhere. Possibly on a remote beach. Far from the horrors of Hanging Rock. 

Despite this, it's still a beautiful book. And more brilliant than most people realise.

The Great Gatsby
It's a literary cliche, but for good reason. It's F.Scott Fitzgerald's best. Forget the crazy nonsense of his life. This book shows he did indeed have talent.

As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.

The tragedy of this story is almost unbearable. It's a study of much more than just class, and society. It's a study of dreams. They say you can have anything you want in life, as long as you're willing to sacrifice everything else for it. I've learned this in my quest to become a writer. Gatsby knew it, too. Sometimes, though, the things we sacrifice (children, family, a life) are more than we can bear. Reading the last page of this book gives me chills, every single time.


  1. My husband's first book almost split us up, it was so all consuming for him, luckily he learnt a lot and it hasn't been that bad ever since plus I know that the partner of a writer must also embrace the solitary life when it's time to get down to business but you know, secretly just entre nous, I dread the announcement of the next book deal. I really need to adopt or get a puppy.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Tabs. So interesting to hear that your husband is a writer too. I've thought of retiring so many times, and I fear it will be soon. It's a horrible profession. No wonder authors go mad. That's why i'd like to do a gardening tour - to get out in the fresh air and meet people!

    This was a rather personal post, so perhaps I shouldn't have posted it? Everyone's heads are probably still with the garden tour! So many emails... 70 at last count. I love it that you're a gardener too.

    Don't worry about your darling hubb. He knows it's a horrible profession. Can you join a social group? Or why not start one? I want to start a Movie Group. And a Garden Group. Which is happening...!

    Sorry,. Comment FAR too long.

  3. Wonderful post! I have been mulling over the books that may have defined my life. Also, my reading history.
    Like you, I was encouraged to read and borrow books from the library, as a child.
    I think the cry of my youth was "Are you reading my book? I haven't finished it yet!".
    Salman Rushdie's "Midnight Children" was a defining book for me, in that until then, I had pretty much read what my parents and school guided me to read. Whereas, this was the independent discovery of contemporary literature.

    1. That's so funny. We used to cry that too. I'd even pinch my mother's books! We still cry that cry over the newspapers.

      Will have to find Midnight Children at the library. Thanks for the tip! x

  4. There is something about Picnic at Hanging Rock that is at the back of my mind ...I remember asking if the school was based on the school called Clyde...It'll come. Then I can bother you again

    I can't wait to read your book.

    Old books I've got boxes full...and I mean old.. there is one froom 1600s that my mother had re bound. Lots of nineteenth century ones too. Old childrens books. etc, etc. Mum always had wall to ceiling bookcases built ..I can't manage that at the moment.

    1. Oh my. Take good care of that 1600 book. It will be worth a fortune. The 19th C ones too. Don't worry if they're in boxes. Just ensure they're away from sunny windows.

      Yes, Picnic was inspired by the school Clyde. Will reveal more in a future post!


  5. Hi Janelle
    I have always been passionate about books. Just last week I was showing a friend three beautiful old books I had found in a second hand book shop. They smelt like an old book should smell and had a wonderful worn patina. The name of a previous owner was written in the most beautiful handwriting inside the front cover. I was saying to my friend that it makes me wonder about the people who have held and read this book before me. She looked at me as if I was quite made and said "it makes me wonder about all the germs that would be on that book." She is not a reader and clearly just doesn't get it.

    One book that did have a profound affect on me when I was a teenager was Vera Brittain's autobiography 'A Testament of Youth.' You have inspired me to read it again.

    1. I shall have to find A Testament of Youth. These recommendations are great. It's always good knowing what others have read and loved.

      Your friend's comment made me laugh. Germs indeed.
      So funny.


  6. Dear Janelle
    Travels with Charley sounds so interesting - have never heard of this Steinbeck before, so will try to find a copy. Learned to read before I began primary school and have always been a bookworm. As a child, I read anything I could lay hands on. My father understood this passion for books - he was a bookworm too (runs in his family) - so every special occasion and at other times too he'd give me heaps of books, most of them second hand. Outgrew Enid Blyton et al very early but loved the LM Montgomery and LM Alcott and other similar books. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was reading Dostoyevsky and Ibsen,though too young and immature to properly understand them.
    Reading a variety of books teaches us so much about life, people, other cultures, the beauties and tragedies of life, about goodness - and the horrors of inhumanity (Mistry's book is very enlightening about the horrors and cruelty of poverty). Some of my favourites include: Tolstoy - War and Peace; Rohan Mistry - A Fine Balance; Giuseppe di Lampedusa - The Leopard; Camus - The Plague; Halldor Laxness - Independent People. Also love a mix of humour and the darker side, and enjoy: Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, EM Forster. And always the contrasts between F Scott Fizgerald and Hemingway. And many many others, including biographies and autobiographies, vols of letters etc. Currently recovering from knee surgery so have plenty of time for reading with my foot up.
    Look forward to reading your Picnic book when it comes out! Sounds really sensational! Best wishes, Pamela

  7. Hi Pamela, Steinbeck is John Steinbeck. He's one of America's greatest writers. But many Australians may not have heard of him. He wrote 'Of Mice And Men', which is very boring! (Don't lynch me if you love it!) Also a few other classics that have become part of the literary landscape of America. But this is very different. It's quite poignant. And very moving.

    I love LM Alcott too. We even went to see her house near Boston. My poor family. I'm always dragging them around to authors' houses!

    Will have to look for A Fine Balance, The Leopard, The Plague and Independent People. They sound great. Thank you so much for the tips. My holiday reading is all sorted now!


    PS Have wished you well in another comment, but I do hope your knee is coming along after the op.

  8. Many thanks Janelle for your kind wishes. The knee is making progress and swelling going down, thank goodness.

    Yes, have read quite a few Steinbecks, including "Of Mice and Men" - but never the road trip book, wasn't even aware of it. I don't find his work boring, there is an essential basic humanity and empathy for his characters who struggle with such difficult lives, but I think the novels are rather male-oriented and perhaps appeal more to men (perhaps rather like Hemingway in that respect), they're not my favourite reading. Hope you're able to find the books above, they're set in very different environments and times and are really worth reading, though some are very sad. The movie of The Leopard with Burt Lancaster in the lead is brilliant. The book and the movie both gave me a passion for Sicily. You might also consider the Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize winner (as some of the other authors above are) - it gives interesting insights into Egyptian life in the earlier years of the 20th century.

    How lovely to have seen LM Alcott's home! Did you take any pictures? Best wishes, Pamela


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