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Richard Flanagan, the Booker Prize, and Books

October 17, 2014

Lisa at ANZLitlovers has posted on Richard Flanagan’s (exciting-to-us) Booker Prize win for The narrow road to the deep north, and has provided links to reviews by several bloggers. So, I thought I’d do something different. In my review and follow-up post, I discussed the role of poetry in the novel. Reviewer (and novelist) Romy Ash suggests that there are two love stories in the book, the second one being a “love letter to literature”.

And certainly, there are many references to literature and books, besides the specific references to poetry that I’ve previously discussed. Early in the novel, on what we later realise was Dorrigo’s last sentient night, he’s in bed with his lover:

On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age. A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound. He read late of an afternoon. He almost never looked at what the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object — as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams.

I was intrigued by the distinction he makes between a “good” book and a “great” one. There are many reasons why I want to reread books. Most of them, I’d say, have to do with the “joy” those books bring me. I don’t mean “joy” in terms of “happiness” but in terms of “inspiration”. This inspiration can take many forms – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, cultural, linguistic. And it usually springs from the two things I mostly read for – insights into human behaviour and great prose. Jane Austen is a good example of this. I’m not sure that I think about it in terms of my soul. Have you thought about why you reread?

Anyhow, there’s one other quote I wanted to share regarding books. This one occurs before the war, in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy, the love of his life:

It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books — an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.

And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work — an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.

What I particularly like about this quote is the idea that books can make you feel you are not alone. I love it when I read a book and think “I know that feeling” or “That’s me”. Of course, I also love it when I gain insight into how others think or feel too, but it can be reassuring to feel that someone else understands your particular neuroses or dark thoughts or sense of the ridiculous or whatever it is that sometimes makes you feel alone. Books can be such cheap therapy can’t they? I also like the second part of this quote, and its suggestion that there is only one book, one story that encompasses all stories. If only we could all see the world that way …

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2014 9:46 pm

    They will be for me, again … eventually …

  2. October 17, 2014 9:56 pm

    A lovely muse, Sue. I loved those quotes you’ve chosen too. I mostly buy new books, but sometimes find gems in second hand stores, and I like books that have a name inside them, and as I read I think of this other person, what they made of the same story. It is a communion. And it’s another reason why writers’ festivals are so much fun, because you get to share other people’s views and reactions and love as well. As you say, books are cheap therapy!

    • October 17, 2014 10:03 pm

      Thanks John. I know what you mean about second hand books. I mostly buy new too, but there can be something special about second hand ones particularly if you can sense the previous reader through name, marginalia, etc.

  3. October 18, 2014 12:10 am

    I have a cupboard with glass doors where I keep my real treasures – the oldies – and yes, maybe it does have an aura, especially when I open it. I’ve also bought new for a long time and now I’ve been buying ebooks for several years. Scrolling through my Kindle library is not quite the same thing as browsing through my little stacks in the glass or anywhere else in my house. I miss covers, knowing what’s inside, loving it. Teaching may have been my vocation as well as my avocation, but reading was my passion. (did I write that? – gads)

    • October 18, 2014 2:10 am

      You did, Bekah! And very eloquent it sounds too.

      I was thinking the same about e-books when I read that passage. They don’t give us that presence at all do they. Aus Lit is my passion so I will rarely buy that in e-format for this reason.

  4. October 18, 2014 1:17 am

    I am so glad you reviewed this book before the Booker announcement and that I got myself on the library hold list for it before everyone else became aware of it. Even so, I still have a bit of a wait but I am really looking forward to it.

    As for rereading, I love that quote. I don’t reread much at all but the books I do reread are the ones that touched me somehow or that tickled something in me that makes me want to read the book again because I know from that tickle that there is something still there for me to find.

    • October 18, 2014 2:07 am

      Thanks Stefanie. I’m glad I read it before the hoopla too, particularly since it also helped you too!

      I like your way of describing rereading … That’s exactly how I feel, the knowing that I’ll find something more. Like you I don’t do it a lot but when I do, that’s what I expect.

      • ian darling permalink
        October 18, 2014 7:16 pm

        The books that become a part of you are rare and special. A lot of books I enjoy are books that absorb and excite me and that is where a lot of the pleasure of reading comes from. I enjoy crime fiction quite a lot but only a handful of these would I ever feel the need to read again The special books are those that you must reread.

        • October 18, 2014 8:01 pm

          Thanks Zian … Yes, that’s an important part of it, I agree – they become part of you, you refer to them in your head at different times in your life or they remind you of times in your life.

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