Two years into my PhD, my ‘essential reading list’ keeps getting longer. One reason for this could be that so many books have become ‘essential’ since I first started keeping a list in 2011. And it doesn’t help that bookish friends and writers recommend books that I have to read. It doesn’t help that Writers Festivals and The Book Depository drip with luscious books that compel me to eat, sorry, read them. It certainly does not help that the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge has introduced me to books and writers who keep me awake at night, reading. And if all this sounds like an excuse for me to keep reading, it probably is.
I once gave up a job I loved when I had to go through the Graham Farmer tunnel to get there. I hate lifts. In my classroom, I lift blinds, so I can look out through the windows. Earlier this month, when I read Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, I had to sit facing an open window at first. Then half way through the book, I positioned myself under the patio, looking out on a larger expanse of garden. This exquisite, claustrophobic book reminded me that I don’t need to live in a military dictatorship to be terrified. Terror exists in the wide expanse of homes overlooking the Sydney Harbour where two girls live, if what they endure could be termed a life. The dictator who patrols the house where the abandoned girls, 13 year old Clare and 19 year old Laura live, is Felix, whose literary forbear is Nabokov’s Humbert and whose contemporary is Grenville’s Albion. And yes, all three books were on my essential reading list.
Books were also on Sir Bob Geldof’s mind at a recent talk he gave on what can be loosely termed ‘leadership’ at Wesley College on St. Patrick’s Day. He quoted Yeats, Shaw and Dylan and told us his childhood was like November – cold, wet and foggy and he never wanted to go back there. He shuffled, walked, made occasional eye contact and said it was intellectually absurd to let people starve. He remembered reading Dickens in the November of his childhood and acknowledging then, as an 11 year old, that it was possible to be colder, hungrier and lonelier than he was.
In a different context, I guess if I hadn’t met Felix Shaw, Humbert Humbert and Albion Singer, all cold, hungry, lonely men, I wouldn’t know the warmth of Amanda Curtin’s Willa Samson or Carrie Tiffany’s Frank Finnegan or Anna Funder’s Dora. So … I keep reading.
How else would I write?