Today I went to work in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library – and lo and behold! The event I’ve been dreading for so long had come to pass. My favourite desk was no more. My favourite floor was a building site. Not a book or desk to be seen.
Thankfully there are other floors which have already been ‘renewed‘ so I found another desk and set to work.
But as I worked I was acutely aware of the absence of books. Of course there are still books, tucked away beyond the desks, but no longer was I surrounded by walls of books as I’d aways been – and was just last week. I’ve researched and mostly written all three of my books in Fisher Library, trawling the shelves for classics from Homer to Carson McCullers, retrieving arcane accounting books from storage.
Fisher is being renewed to create, among other things, ‘a range of high quality, IT enhanced learning and research environments’ and ‘improve the utilisation of space’ (which entails moving truck loads of books into storage 100 kms south of Sydney).
So Fisher is moving into 21st century, into the Information Age. Its quiet book dominated space has been transformed into e-space: connected, communal, collaborative work stations. This reverses the medieval European move from a noisy oral culture to one of monkish silence, from spoken storytelling to written culture read silently in minds. With e-space comes e-time – short, nonlinear – and new ways of getting and telling stories, information: downloading, surfing, biting, grabbing, linking, blogging, tweeting, facebooking, instagraming, snap chatting, etc.
These two worlds – books from days of yore and 21C e-time – collided in last week’s First Tuesday Book Club, Bragging Rights, which was devoted to ‘thoroughly troublesome books. You know them – those big fat ones you need a grasp of quantum physics, a smattering of ancient Greek and a degree in epistemology to even begin to understand’. The session challenged four guests ‘to take up one of these impossible books and report back’. The guests were comedian and actor Lawrence Mooney, writer and director of Adelaide Festival of Ideas Sophie Black, former board member of the Sydney Writers’ Festival and former Chair of Saatchi & Saatchi Sandra Yates, and documentary maker and writer John Safran.
The ‘impossible books’ were Underworld by Don DeLillo (chosen by Lawrence Mooney); Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Sophie Black); Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Sandra Yates); and Cervantes’ Don Quixote (John Safran). Mooney finished Underworld and found it quite easy, apart from its enormity. Safran read half of Don Quixote and was amazed by how postmodern it is, how funny, how accessible: ‘If you’re just slightly generous and you get into the lingo, it’s hilarious’. Black and Yates didn’t, couldn’t, finish their books.
OK, so I totally get why we don’t have time to read these books in the 21st century. I also think discussing the problems we have reading them – their enormity, complex genealogies, lack of punctuation, the grind of life, the shortness of time – is a worthwhile pursuit.
BUT! When the national broadcaster’s only TV book show canvassed four of my ALL TIME FAVOURITE novels in mostly superficial and glib tones my heart broke – a lot. Not because I think everyone should read these books. Or like them if they do. But because I LOVE these books. It was like someone dismissing my most beloved friends because they’re too difficult, shy, complex, demanding to spend time with and get to know. Why do I love these four books? Let me count the ways:
1 Don Quixote – I’ve already written about Cervantes’ novel here, but I think what I most love about it is its shocking agelessness (or postmodernity, as Safran called it) notably its super sophisticated self-referentiality and play with the world beyond itself (like Ferris Bueller as Safran said, or Woody Allen’s Zelig or reality TV), and its hilarity (I laughed out loud so often). And then there’s something agonisingly poignant, oh so human, about this story of a middle aged man who loses himself in romances, in tales of chivalry, and sets off into the real world to live them out. He fails dismally because the age of chivalry has long gone, but he is none the wiser, in his delusion he truly believes he is a knight in shining armour. And then one day he meets a group of people who turn his dream world into ‘real’ life … opening the possibility of disenchantment of the most devastating order.
2 War and Peace – most days my all time favourite novel, as I’ve written here. In its many pages it contains some of the most penetrating, profound writing on war and history, love and family, youth and age, I’ve ever read. And a love triangle (my favourite kind of story) like no other.
3 Swann’s Way – I fell into this novel from the first page and keep returning to it: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say ‘I’m going to sleep.’ And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light’. How many nights have I done that? It is harder to say what I love about Proust, especially because he’s fairly new to me, but perhaps it’s as simple as loving drifting to the rhythms of his prose, meandering down the laneways of his mind, losing myself in his palpable conjured life, his books. And I love Swann’s longing.
4 Underworld – Apart from having one of the all time greatest extended openings of any novel on earth, this really is what they say it is: THE novel of America from the Second World War to the end of the 20th century. It’s haunted by violence, atomic weapons and waste, murders and the deaths of children from AIDS, drive-by shootings and beatings, but it vibrates with life, with jazz, cinema, chess, baseball, Hollywood, love, sex, graffiti, art installations in the desert, rooftop parties in summertime Manhattan, ‘It was the rooftop summer, drinks or dinner, a wedged garden with a wrought iron table’. The novel centres on Nick Shay – I love Nick Shay – but it is vast. No one has captured it better than Michael Ondaatje: ‘This book is an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century. It contains multitudes.’
Strangely enough I managed to do good work in the renewed Fisher Library today. Thinking about this made me realise my new projects cover mere decades, not millennia or centuries as my previous three have. Perhaps I’m moving into e-time.