Finished writing new book! Now back to reading and being bookish

At long last I’ve finished writing, editing, copyediting and proofreading my new book. Now I can read freely and blog again.

Last week a friend mentioned Les Murray’s extraordinary poem ‘Burning Want‘ which reminded me that I’ve been wanting to blog about Les Murray here for ages. And poetry is what I’ve been LONGING for while being down among the numbers for the last 12 months and more while working on my new book. Here are the first three stanzas of Murray’s devastating poem:

From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden.
Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle.

I met a tall adopted girl some kids thought aloof,
but she was intelligent. Her poise of white-blonde hair
proved her no kin to the squat tanned couple who loved her.
Only now do I realise she was my first love.

But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.
Mass refusal of unasked love; that works. Boys cheered as seventeen-
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying ridicule.

I’ve also started reading, along with the rest of the world, Thomas Piketty’s  Capital in the Twenty-First Century. So far so excellent, and I can see why it’s knocked economists’ socks off everywhere. Apart from being exceptionally well researched and thought, it’s beautifully written, lucid, rollicking even. I’m also reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. So far I’m only up to James’s Introduction, which is mesmerising. What a brain, what an ear, what a writer. More about both these books when I’ve read them.

I also received a copy of my publisher Allen & Unwin‘s centenary history this week, which I’ve been reading over breakfast and thoroughly enjoying: A Hundred Years of Allen & Unwin, 1914-2014 by A&U founders Patrick Gallagher and Paul Donovan. Such fascinating history which I had no idea about before now. Here’s how it opens:

‘On 4 August 1914, England declared war on Germany and a new book publisher by the name of George Allen & Unwin Ltd opened for business in London with one Stanley Unwin at its head.’

According to the book, Stanley Unwin bought the floundering publishing house George Allen & Company to set himself up in business. This company has a wonderful history: it was founded by George Allen, a pupil and friend of John Ruskin, in a field in Kent in 1871 to hand print and publish Ruskin’s books, which kept it in business until Ruskin’s death in 1900.

My next blog will be about Les Murray, followed by, at long last, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


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A crime: Joseph Stiglitz on the proposed deregulation of Australia’s universities

More on universities – this time not on the libraries of Sydney University (although I will be back onto that the moment I’m through this ocean of rewriting), but on the appalling moves the Abbott government made in its 2014 federal budget to deregulate Australia’s universities so they are more like America’s. Education minister Christopher Pyne said before the budget that Australians have much to learn about universities ‘from our friends in the United States’.

Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz

I like the language economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz uses to debunk Pyne and the Abbott government’s delusions that such a move will bring better education: ‘A CRIME’. This is the sort of language we need to be using in our fight against neoliberalism. I note that these Liberal Party architects of this monstrous budget do not have an economist among them: Abbott, Hockey, Pyne, lawyers and sophists all. They have NO IDEA what they are doing. On the other hand, Stiglitz is in Canberra reporting from the heartland of free market America where it’s all gone horribly wrong, and is a bold and brilliant economist. Will they listen to him?

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Stitglitz said: ‘Countries that imitate the American model are kidding themselves. It seems that some people here would like to emulate the American model. I don’t fully understand the logic.’ And he called the Australian education system ‘really a model for the rest of the world’ and said deregulating fees was a move in the wrong direction.

‘Trying to pretend that universities are like private markets is absurd,’ Stitglitz said. He called the American system ‘a way of closing off opportunity’ and said ‘While we in the US are trying to RE-REGULATE universities you are talking about deregulating them. It really is a crime.’

Stiglitz trashed the whole American free market model, the one the Abbott government is so desperate to instal in Australia. He said: ‘You have to say that the American market model has failed. It’s a very strong statement for someone who believes in a market economy.’

Some powerful words for the morning, to take into the day. I am realising more than ever that powerful words are what we need. So I cannot wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, due out this September.


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Stats v stacks, metrics v books: An open letter to Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, University of Sydney

Before I return to my bookish seclusion, this is a letter I sent to Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, on 19 May 2014 about the changes planned for the libraries of Sydney University. As Dr Spence has not (yet) replied – and given the secrecy and speed with which these changes appear to be unfolding as well as the university’s stated desire to ensure greater transparency and to deepen its engagement with alumni and stakeholders – I am making this an open letter.

Dear Dr Michael Spence

I write as a former student of the University of Sydney, a continuing and avid user of Fisher Library, and a member of the local community. So, in corporate parlance, I am a University of Sydney stakeholder. And one extremely interested in institutional transparency – and deeply concerned about the changes to the university’s libraries that continue to unfold at speed and it seems with some secrecy.

I have written all three of my books using the resources of Fisher Library. Given they all take a long view of history – one on ‘classics’ from Homer to Salman Rushdie, another on accounting from Mesopotamia to the 2008 financial crash – I could not have written them without the paper books of Fisher Library. Many of which, in the case of my accounting book Double Entry, were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had not been taken out of the library since the 1940s. These are the sorts of books that were among the 500,000 culled from Fisher Library during its recent ‘Renewal‘.

Given my interest in accounting and its history, I am only too aware of the exacting cost-benefit calculus that governs life in the 21st century at all levels and across every sphere, but I am also painfully aware of the non-financial costs of this calculus.

I see these non-financial costs already apparent in the changes that have been made to Fisher Library (and more devastatingly at the library of the University of New South Wales where I am a postgrad student) and I fear these are just the beginning of the changes set to unfold at the University of Sydney.

So when I heard last week that there are more changes to be made to the libraries of your university, that books and entire collections – at the Medical Library and Badham – are under threat, along with the jobs of librarians and access for undergraduates, I could no longer see this simply as a problem that affected me and my ability to research my books, but as one that affects the whole university community and its stakeholders broadly, with implications for scholarly life in the 21st century more generally and, I would also argue, for democratic society itself.

With all this in mind and in the name of transparency, I would be extremely interested to hear from you just exactly what is planned for the libraries of the University of Sydney, their librarians and their books. And, if possible, why.

With all the brilliance of your literary and legal mind, the reach of your power and the depth of your spiritual convictions, I cannot believe that you cannot conceive of a better way to address the problems of space and the demands of financial accounting than to work secretly to offload books from an institution founded on books.

I look forward to hearing from you when you have a moment.

All best wishes, Jane Gleeson-White

Dr Michael Spence

Dr Michael Spence

Fisher Library as it once was - home to some million books

Fisher Library as it once was – home to some million books


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How do novelists engage with politics? Christos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright and Kathryn Heyman talk fiction and politics with Margot Saville at the Sydney Writers’ Fest 2014

First, to set the scene – and given I’ve been chained to my desk since January, how very welcome and extra breathtaking that scene was. Sydney Harbour at its glistening best.


So, novels and politics. A massive subject to cover in just one hour, with each writer given 10 minutes to talk about the way they tackle politics in their novels. Here are some of the notes I scribbled, in order of their appearance.

Cristos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright, Kathryn Heyman and Margot Saville.

Cristos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright, Kathryn Heyman and Margot Saville.

First up was Christos Tsiolkas, who said he became a writer because he wanted to express hope and rage. He spoke about two key influences in his life: a drag queen called Lady Constance who – when Tsiolkas was 16 years old – waved her hand over their ‘drab city’ of Melbourne and showed him how it could be transformed into a magical place. She said ‘It’s all doom and gloom – but let’s forget that for a moment and laugh so loud we shake the foundations of capitalism.’ And taught him about escape and the imaginative remaking of the world.

Ever since he has been locked in an embrace between Lady Constance’s escape and the realism of his Uncle Costas, who sat him down when he was 12 and told him about Communism and the politics of his postwar working class Greek heritage. When Tsiolkas became the first person in his family to get into university, Uncle Costas congratulated him. And then he slapped him. ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’

Tsiolkas talked of the ecstatic joy like dancing he can feel when writing fiction – ‘We are lucky to be writers’ – despite the shame, humiliation, self-doubt that go with it.

For him writing non-fiction is just the opposite. Writing ‘Why Australia hates asylum seekers‘ was not like dancing. It was like wading through heavy sludge. Why? Because of the responsibility he felt to real humans, to men, women and children who through no fault of their own find themselves homeless. When writing it he wanted to step outside the ‘Manichean good/bad’ division so much of our politics and public debate is mired in, to ‘communicate our differences and find our way out of this mess’.

With non-fiction there is fidelity to the real, best exemplified for Tsiolkas in the work of writers like Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt. With fiction there is fidelity to the imagination. Non-fiction can talk about struggle. Fiction can talk about resistance.

His favourite political line is Emma Goldman’s ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And in his novels he dances to the music of Lady Constance and Uncle Costas: ‘Create the world anew, sings Lady Constance. Don’t forget where you came from, is Uncle Costas’s refrain.’

Alexis Wright said that Plains of Promise was her first attempt to write a novel – but she felt in that book she hadn’t yet found her style. She said it took some time for her to find what she was trying to do, ‘to be faithful to the world I come from and the way we tell stories’. She needed to find an authenticity of place, mind, voice, and of all times.

Her latest novel The Swan Book began with a sudden thought: ‘I want to write about swans’. She knew nothing about swans. There are no swans where she comes from in the Gulf savannah of northern Australia. So she started asking people in central Australia where she was living if they had any stories about swans. And they started telling stories about swans, surprisingly seen in the spinifex country of central Australia and in the Gulf country, places they’d never been seen before. And then she read all the literature and poetry on swans she could find.

Wright was working on The Swan Book during the time of John Howard, who ‘squashed our big dreams’, she said, such as the idea of Aboriginal self-government, an idea which had given her people hope for the future. With their big dreams squashed they had to develop a different way of doing things – and The Swan Book represents such a different way.

She asked herself: ‘Was I going to think about what Howard was saying every day? Or was I going to think about swans?’

She chose swans. This way of thinking is part of her broader belief that her people need what she calls ‘sovereignty of mind‘. ‘If you don’t think in your own way, then your imagination closes doors. You lose your way.’

There was also a drought in southern Australia. Were the swans going to country they’d never been in before because of the drought? Global warming? Wright was thinking about all this when she wrote The Swan Book. And about global relationships, how we empathise with people and treat the other. She tried to relate global issues to ‘what’s happening on the ground here with Aboriginal people and how our rights have been taken away since colonisation – and Australia gets away with it. Nothing is done about it. This attitude gathers momentum and you can apply it to other people.’ Such as asylum seekers.

Wright said writers should be thinking about not only small things but bigger things across the world, thinking about the future and what it might mean for our children’s children. What if there were more frequent and extreme weather events across the country and the world?

“‘Acts of Mother Nature” we used to call them. And that’s a thought too. Who is Mother Nature in a world that doesn’t believe in the power of the country any more and the old ancient stories about how to care for it, Aboriginal stories?’

So writing about swans was a political decision. How are the swans?

Wright wanted to have conversations in her book that we’re not having in this country, for example, about Aboriginal government. She said she’s also developed an Aboriginal style in her novels. ‘There’s an Aboriginal way of telling stories, of doing things.’ And referred to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, where he talks about the important elements of literature: ‘inclusiveness in literature, complexity (the world is becoming more complex), visibility, lightness (or shamans, who can shed the world from their shoulders and fly to some other place, exactly like the healer in Aboriginal culture), being exact.’

Wright was in full flight when her 10 minutes elapsed – unlike Tsiolkas she had not prepared a talk – and Kathryn Heyman took the lectern. Heyman said who you pay attention to, who you choose to put in your novel, is an essentially political act. Everything is essentially political. I liked her quote from American philosopher Richard Rorty, who said: ‘The novel, the movie, and the TV program have gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principle vehicles of moral change and progress.’

Heyman called politics ‘secularised theology’ – because both deal in and manipulate hope.

All three writers spoke thoughtfully and with great feeling (Tsiolkas moved Heyman to tears) – and I thoroughly enjoyed the session. But it did make me qualify my exuberant claim of yesterday, ‘when in doubt, seek out the writers‘. Yes, it was fantastic to be among the writers, especially in this sweet autumn weather. But really, when in doubt, seek out the writers’ BOOKS. For that is where their words are at their most vigorous and foundations-shaking.





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When in doubt, seek out the writers: Alexis Wright and Christos Tsiolkas talk politics and the novel at SWF 2014

In these dark days when numbers rule – and politicians and university vice-chancellors outsource complex moral decisions to the market – writers are SO IMPORTANT! And two of my favourite writers who dare to wrestle with the murky world of politics in their novels are Alexis Wright and Christos Tsiolkas. Their fire and passion, the ferocious energy of their prose, their courage, the intelligence of their vision – and Wright’s super dry humour – thrill me daily.

So I am beyond thrilled to be off to the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014 to hear them both speak together this afternoon on the subject closest to my heart: How do novelists engage with politics?

Thank you Sydney Writers’ Festival!

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright

Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas

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The week after the night before: What Sydney thinks of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s first budget

When six pictures paint thousands of words and numbers bamboozle. But first, seven words:

Christopher Pyne – putting the ‘n’ in cut

… from my favourite placard at the March in May on Sunday 18 May 2014. Here are some more words and pics from the March in May – and scenes from today’s University of Technology protests against tertiary education cuts.

Victoria Park, Sunday 18 May 2014

Victoria Park, Sunday 18 May 2014


And hands off our education: Students and staff protest at the University of Technology, Wednesday 21 May 2014

Students and staff at the University of Technology: Hands off our education

Students and staff at the University of Technology: Hands off our education




As for the saga of the disappearing books – in this Sydney Writers’ Festival week – from the University of Sydney’s libraries, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence on Monday but have not yet heard a word in reply. Perhaps I will not.

Or, perhaps Michael Spence is too busy trying to make sense of the federal budget’s plan to deregulate course fees for higher education.

According to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney – Barney Glover – the funding changes to higher education are SO COMPLEX there isn’t enough time to implement them by 2016, when they’re due to go ahead. And Professor Glover should know. He has a PhD in applied mathematics.

It reminds me of Erasmus, who in his 1509 satire In Praise of Folly mocked a new breed of sophist: mathematicians and all those who use numbers to hoodwink and bamboozle. In this passage Erasmus was very possibly referring to the father of accounting Luca Pacioli:

‘When especially they disdain the vulgar crowd is when they bring out their triangles, quadrangles, circles, and mathematical pictures of the sort, lay one upon the other, intertwine them into a maze, then deploy some letters as if in line of battle, and presently do it over in reverse order – and all to involve the uninitiated in darkness.’

We live daily with the consequences of this rule by number.


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The library stripped bare 2: the University of Sydney’s Library draft change proposal, aka libricide

libricide 1. (rare) The destruction of books.

Since writing about libraries here five days ago I’ve been looking into the University of Sydney’s plan to ‘restructure’ its libraries.

The ‘Update on library change proposal‘ issued on 8 May 2014 talks of ‘wider changes to provide library services in tune with the needs of today’s students and researchers’. This seems to mean, to provide services whose use can be more easily quantified.

Regarding the threat of job losses, the university said ‘it is unable to quantify the possible number of job losses for want of a business plan’. It also said it had made clear ‘that the number of full-time equivalent staff in the proposed new structure could be higher than the current number. The number of “job losses” will therefore depend on the outcome of both the mapping and the redeployment processes.’

Those quote marks around “job losses” are not promising. Nor are the ideas of ‘equivalent staff’ and staff ‘mapping’.

My other concern is for the books themselves. This plan entails the removal of entire collections of books from specialist libraries, notably the Medical Library and Badham Library, which is home to veterinary science, agriculture and the environment, and the biological sciences. And the transformation of two other libraries – Camden and Dentistry – into 24-hour access book vending machines.

Nor am I heartened by the university’s 2012 annual report, in which the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence speaks of ‘our program of library upgrades’. This is partly spelled out in ‘Strategy 7′, which notes that the university’s learning facilities are ‘underpinned by “virtual desktop” technology, which enables students to access hundreds of course-specific applications when they log on to University-provided computers in the new spaces. By end-2012, more than 30,800 students “owned” a virtual desktop and there were on average 6000 logins per day.’

Another key 2012 library initiative was a ‘learning space metrics project’, which ‘identified that students engage annually in more than 5 million online sessions as part of their experience in units of study, interacting with more than 3 million learning objects, and using more than 60 online tools provided by the University.’

Such beautiful numbers. Such empty data.

In my post last Tuesday I alluded to The Walrus and the Carpenter because I like its rhythms. But it is also a poem about deception and mass destruction. Of oysters, by the walrus and the carpenter.

It seems a similar act of mass destruction is threatened for the books of the University of Sydney. This has already happened to its Fisher Library, once one of the largest Dewey Decimal open stacks in the world. As part of its revamp, around half of Fisher’s former one million books were disappeared. Many disposed of. Some put into storage, so they can no longer be browsed.

Apparently ‘browsing’ – which is what physically reading books in the library is now called – ‘has been deemed a luxury, unsustainable on cost-efficiency grounds’. This according to Adam Jasper Smith, in his story ‘The optimisation of Fisher Library‘ published in 2011.

As he explained it, ‘The problem with browsing is that it is private, old-fashioned and hard to quantify.’ Ah. Numbers again. Smith said, ‘IT-learning is so cheap, so easily quantifiable, that it becomes impossible to defend a practice, like reading books, that is so wasteful, and so indulgently unquantifiable in its value.’

For Smith the planned renovation of Fisher amounted to ‘an auto da fe – the burning of books on an unprecedented scale – except that this systematic destruction is being conducted not in public but in secret, and not for overtly ideological ends but rather on behalf of the grinding banalities of economic optimisation.’

Because they are couched in the apparently neutral language of ‘economic optimisation‘, the new plans may not appear to be ‘overtly ideological’ – but ideological they most certainly are. As ideological as the federal budget unleashed by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey in Canberra last week (both, like Spence, products of Sydney University’s Law School). The ideology is straight from Milton Friedman, who summed up its oxymoronic essence in his 1970 essay ‘The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’. That ideology whose moral compass is cost-benefit analysis.

The ideological content of this threatened library desecration is not lost on Michael Wilding, professor of English at the University of Sydney. In March, Wilding wrote about ‘Libraries under threat‘ in the Sydney Review of Books. Wilding dates this library destroying movement to the 1980s of Reagan and Thatcher – to that moment when governments began systematically to outsource everything to the market. Or, as Wilding put it, the ‘1980s rejection of all values other than making money’.

Books don’t fit this new world. They don’t make money sitting on library shelves. They don’t generate electronic information every time they’re accessed, opened, read. They take up valuable space. According to Adam Jasper Smith, Michael Spence imposed a usage fee on every square metre of Fisher Library – so it has to pay for the space it has and use it ‘better’. Hence the refit and book expulsion. Presumably the university’s other libraries are subject to the same exacting calculus. Books no longer pay their way. They are redundant.

Smith told a story that speaks volumes about the current crisis in the life of books. In 1995, around 10,000 books were donated by the University of Sydney to the new University of Western Sydney. But UWS didn’t have the funds to catalogue them – so ‘the ill-fated books were dumped into a mass grave and buried under 2.5 metres of soil’. 10,000 books. Buried.

Over five times this number of books were exiled from Fisher Library during its renovation. Who knows what’s become of them all? And what will become of the valuable specialist collections in the university’s Medical and Badham libraries if the new plans go ahead?

And nor does digitisation guarantee survival, as Michael Wilding makes clear with his story about the ill-fated electronic version of the Domesday Book. In 2002 Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe wrote:

‘It was meant to be a showcase for Britain’s electronic prowess – a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book. But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable. The special computers developed to play the 12in video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are – quite simply – obsolete.’

The original Domesday Book, an inventory compiled in 1086 by Norman monks, is in good condition in the Public Record Office in Kew and can be accessed by anyone who can read.

The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book

So much for the relative merits of books and electronic information.

I have spent many hours in Fisher Library both as a student and later when researching my books. Books and libraries, especially Fisher, fire my brain and feed my soul. They are part of our shared culture and a democratic society.

I will be asking Dr Michael Spence ( exactly what is planned for the libraries, their staff and their books at his university. I’ve already signed the National Tertiary Education Union’s petition: Save Library Services, Save Jobs.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch

Writer Tony Birch has been a voracious reader all his life. He had a public library card when he was five years old. When his novel Blood was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012, he told SMH literary editor Susan Wyndham that ‘to hug a book in bed was the equivalent of holding a hot water bottle’.

I know what he means. That warm comfort. I’d rather go to bed with a book than a data set any day.

Fisher Library stack

Fisher Library stack


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