history, literature

A list of 21 books that shaped me

This list may never end, or so the green dream of the solitary reader goes:

1. A book of modern verse whose name I cannot recall but it was from its fawn paperback that I first absorbed, reading and hearing verses as a child, the taste for modernism.

2. A teach yourself Russian book, which I never got much past da and nyet, but created a vision of an Other land in my memory.

3. Wisden, and its statistics and spirit of English summer wistfulness from which I elaborated a now defunct philosophy of sport.

4. A now forgotten historical young adult fiction or chivalric romance of the crusades that fused in me a love of history.

5. Braddon’s Year of the Angry Rabbit which I confused with a political world of apocalyptic possibility and corrupted cynicism.

6. Trollope’s Palliser novels that gave me a preternatural sense of political and bureaucratic life, but left me for a long time a denizen of the nineteenth century.

7. Anna Karenina, the first great novel I read in my teen years, in a penguin paperback edition that had for me a magically impossible image of aristocratic skaters in winter Moscow or St Petersburg.

8. Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu, which I heard, not read, on ABC Radio National’s Radio Helicon, back when there were true arts programs on the radio, and its energy of pre-war cultural breakdown and artistic rebellion returned me to the twentieth century.

9. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, for reasons I have elaborated on elsewhere on this blog.

10. E.P.Thompson The making of the English working class, out of whose tradition of rescuing the poor stockinger from the condescension of posterity I conceived in rootless error my failed early academic research career that sought to recover the lived experience of the workers of nineteenth century Australia.

11. Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, which took me to giddying heights of abstraction but still taught a sophisticated discipline in conceiving and perceiving social phenomenon. Blessedly, it also innoculated me from the academic vice of Marxist nostalgia.

12. Weber’s Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, that showed me both the uncanny power of ideas and how even a sociologist can write to seek salvation from personal torment.

13. Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, The Lime Works, Concrete, Wittgenstein’s Nephew and others – of all the great post-second world war modernist authors who critics recommended to me, Bernhard intrigued me most, with his musical obsessive rants of intellectualised outsiders.

14. Proust, In search of lost time, and I still feel like Proust searching for redemption through art or culture – beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all there is to know and al that ye need to know on this earth – and to escape the force of self-defiling habit that is among the banal evils of the world.

15 Szymborska’s View with a grain of sand, which made me realise I could write poetry again.

16 A book of luminous things: an international anthology of poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, which sustained my spirit and mind through many dark years of disconsolate wandering through the outer corridors of power.

17 The Tempest, as imagined through Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, which reanimated my enchantments and made me spurn my own Milan and find again my precious books in my own solitary isle.

18 Simon Schama, Citoyens, which brought me back again into history, and cured me of the latent violence of political radicalism.

19 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millenium that introduced me to global history and made me in mid-life an explorer again.

20. WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn that mesmerised me with its melancholic mental events, and made me rethink whether I need ever write within the shackles of a genre again

21. Roger Scruton, The uses of pessimism that revealed to me the conservative disposition I had long cloaked in discontent with what life had dealt to me.

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