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Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookprint, Australian-style

September 7, 2020

Have you heard of the term or concept of bookprint? I came across it in a December 2019 article in The Conversation titled “5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world”. The Conversation credits the term to African-American educator Alfred Tatum who, according to the University of Illinois’ Today website, coined it to describe “one’s memory of personally influential books”. It goes on to say that Tatum believes “most young black males need to acquire a bookprint outside their school-assigned reading”.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusConsidering this concept, The Conversation authors Larissa McLean Davies, Sarah E. Truman, Jessica Gannaway and Lucy Buzacott, came up with their list of five books for young Australians. They are:

  • Clare G. Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review) – for ages 16+
  • Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The tribe (Lisa’s review) – for ages 13+
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review) – for ages 16+
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Growing up African in Australia (Lisa’s review) – for ages 15+
  • Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s (ed) Meet me at the intersection – for ages 15+

To see their reasons for choosing these books, please click the link to the article in my opening paragraph. The authors make the point that “historically underrepresented people including Aboriginal writers, writers of colour, migrant writers, queers writers and writers living with disability are particularly underrepresented” in school curricula. Clearly – and with good reason – this is what they mostly address in this list.

Of course, what’s “personally influential” is, by definition, deeply personal, but this list looks to at least encourage young people to look outside their own box, to walk for a little while in the shoes of others – and that, it is presumably hoped, will develop empathy with and tolerance of others.

For me …

… the works that were “personally influential”, those I often find myself remembering, included those which confronted me with moral choices, those which helped me develop the moral code I (try to) live by. Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, and the characters in Albert Camus’ The plague (my review), for example, had big choices to make, choices that could mean life or death for them or for others, choices that involved behaving selfishly or selflessly, choices that exposed the moral codes they lived by. What Australian books would I recommend that encourage this sort of thinking, that confront students with choices about how to live?

Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) could be one. While there is an overall narrator, we see several perspectives. We also see characters making choices and, sometimes, reflecting on the validity or implication of those choices. Thea Astley’s An item from the late news (my review) is another. There is meaty moral discussion to be had here, and, as in Shakespeare’s big tragedies, our protagonist is deeply flawed while also seeing what is right and wrong. In John Clanchy’s In whom we trust (my review), the protagonist has a big decision to make, one that would right poor decisions earlier in his life.

This is a topic that could go on forever – and I could certainly suggest more titles – but at this stage, having introduced the topic, I think I’ll pass it over to you, my Gummie brains trust. So …

Do you have books that were personally influential to you and/or what would you recommend for young people (and why)?

46 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2020 11:20 pm

    I would have put The Natural Way of Things in that list as I think, as I said in my review, that young men could learn a lot about what women are forced to put up with.
    My own bookprint would begin with PC Wren’s Beau Ideal from which I got some very lofty ideas about honour, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel which taught me about big capital’s ferocious response to workers attempts to get out from under. If I were to throw in an Australian it would be A Difficult Young Man because … the upper class fascinates me.

    • September 8, 2020 5:15 am

      Boyd’s “upper class” was then, don’t you think ? – the people who went home every so often ?
      So I’m surprised at your use of the present tense, because these days the obscene wealth belonging to so few Australians doesn’t go within a bull’s roar of making an upper class.

      • September 8, 2020 7:27 am

        I admit my ideas about the Australian upper class were formed 50 years ago when I went up to Trinity College, Melb Uni from the bush – from the Western District of Victoria where the squattocracy still lived in comfort on the proceeds of 10 and 20,000 acre stations in prime beef country. I mixed with boys who spoke with a plummy accent, who had been to Melb and Geelong Grammar (with Prince Charles) and who were certain that they were born to rule. Yes there’s lots of new money around now, and since John Howard replaced Malcolm Fraser the upper class has fallen out of view, but I’m not sure that the second and third generations of that ‘new money’ are any different from what they’ve always been – entitled and pulling the strings.

        • September 8, 2020 8:33 am

          Oh, both those .. ahh .. qualities (?).
          But I can’t help feeling that calling them “upper class” is doing them an undeserved favour. [grin]

        • September 8, 2020 8:41 am

          It all depends on connotation doesn’t it, M-R. Did the well-to-do ever, en masse, deserve the positive connotation of “upper”? I like your thinking. We should do away with the “upper” and “lower” terms altogether. All terms are fraught though . Hmm… I think I’ll bow out here.

        • September 8, 2020 9:06 am

          But also on subjective definition,, 😀

        • September 8, 2020 9:50 am

          I think there’s a close correlation between connotation and subjective definition!

        • September 8, 2020 8:34 am

          Yes I understand this Bill, and I think you’re right. Of course, we should be careful about generalising about them just as much as we should about generalising about any group.

          that said I am generally-ha!-anti private schools because I fear it can blinker young people about the real world and discourage empathy.

        • September 8, 2020 8:39 am

          You know I am never careful about generalising. And as a socialist I am a firm believer that class analysis is both important and carefully ignored in Australia.
          If M-R will forgive me answering your question to her, Boyd’s upper class is the landed gentry who saw England as ‘home’.

        • September 8, 2020 8:50 am

          Ha ha, neither you nor Mr Gums I’m afraid, Bill! Generalisation for analysis is acceptable to me, but I do like to be careful.

          Yes I understood Boyd’s upper class Bill. It was M-R’s suggestion, which she’s now confirmed, that I was querying ie that they “deserve” upper versus the wealthy now, I think that’s being generous!

      • September 8, 2020 8:31 am

        I’m not quite sure of your point re Boyd’s upper class M-R and today? Are you meaning the definition of upper class? Sorry to be obtuse.

        • September 8, 2020 8:34 am

          Yes, Sue; I don’t acknowledge that there is one, not any more. Just $$$.

        • September 8, 2020 8:46 am

          See my previous reply. thanks for confirmng what I thought you were getting at. I just think the “any more” is moot -the implication that past “uppers” deserved the “upper” description. Many of the ”upper” in Austen – remember, many of her heroines were comfortable but not “upper” – are not the best people (Lady Catherine, Sir Walter, Mrs Churchill, Willoughby’s aunt, to name a few).

        • September 8, 2020 9:07 am

          Entirely agree, O wise one !

        • September 8, 2020 9:50 am

          If you agree you must be wise too then.

        • Neil@kallaroo permalink
          September 9, 2020 6:27 pm

          Hmm. Starting to look like a gathering of the upper-class intelligentsia!

        • September 9, 2020 8:00 pm

          Haha Neil … takes one to know one perhaps??!

        • Neil@kallaroo permalink
          September 9, 2020 9:24 pm

          Well, I’m half way there 😊

        • September 10, 2020 8:31 am

          Haha, good to hear!

    • September 8, 2020 8:16 am

      Oh yes, Bill, The natural way of things is a good suggestion , particularly re the issues The Conversation authors were looking at and re Tatum’s wish for young men.

  2. Meg permalink
    September 8, 2020 8:04 am

    Hi Sue, I haven’t heard of the concept ‘bookprint’, until I read your post. I can think of a few, but the two that stand out for me are Disgrace by J M Coetzee, and For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.

    • September 8, 2020 8:37 am

      Disgrace – yes, very good one Meg. I still haven’t read Term, which is my guilty secret , except I’ve outed myself now!

  3. September 8, 2020 9:08 am

    Growing up in midwest America my book prints were from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith about the importance of education and Richard Wright’s s Native Son . They were very important and continue to ring true. Many more but these two stand out at the moment.

    • September 8, 2020 11:06 am

      Thanks Pam, I’ve been listening to the Smith as an audiobook, but that has stopped as we are not driving anymore. I am enjoying it. My daughter read Native son when she was on exchange at UVA. I’ve aways meant to read it.

  4. September 8, 2020 10:06 am

    Bill Gammage’s book The Greatest Estate on Earth entirely changed the way I look at the physical world. Bruce Pascoe’s highly regarded book, Dark Emu, built upon Gammage’s and was super-interesting, but it was Gammage who turned the light on for me.

    • September 8, 2020 11:09 am

      Ha Michelle, I decided not to go to nonfiction because I wanted to focus on what fiction can do, but I’m glad someone else decided to look at it.

    • September 11, 2020 3:13 pm

      Gammage is amazing! I met him once at an author talk and was blown away by his humble nature and depth of knowledge about the Australian landscape

      • September 11, 2020 4:26 pm

        Thanks Marg. I heard him talk once, and was impressed but I haven’t met him – besides having my book signed!

  5. September 8, 2020 11:28 am

    LOL You can tell that The Conversation authors are well aware that teachers of students in those age groups are lucky if students read one book in a year, and not even that if they can find a screen version of the text. So the anthologies and short stories and the novella are a good idea.
    I wish I were in my school library at the moment because I had a fine collection of picture books for older students that could be read to a class to stimulate a rich discussion about the agendas that the suggested list covers… alas, a mere six years after retirement, I can’t remember their names though I can picture their covers as clear as day.
    My bookprint is not one I read at school. Believe it or not, it was Wuthering Heights, which taught me that love transcends colour and class, and that when we love, we should do it with passion.

    • September 8, 2020 11:45 am

      Yes, I thought exactly that about the selection Lisa – no “demanding” literature, like Shakespeare but good engaging works hopefully! I love your choice … interestingly though it’s a book I loved when I read it but have more or less discarded since. I didn’t read The plague (one of my bookprints) at school either, but of course I did do the Shakespeares there. And we did do Wuthering Heights in 5th or 6th form. Those years meld a bit!

      • September 8, 2020 11:49 am

        One of my teens, in year 9, is currently studying The Rabbits – a picture book by Shaun Tan and John Marsden. Great book, engaging issues, but definitely fits into the ‘undemanding read’ category.

        • September 8, 2020 4:00 pm

          I don’t know that at all Michelle, but I love that Marsden and Tan are working together.

      • September 8, 2020 5:54 pm

        Yes, I’ve discarded WH too, but it really spoke to me when I was younger!

  6. Sue permalink
    September 8, 2020 7:40 pm

    I love a challenging topic, Sue! Do the writers have to be Australian – because I’m afraid the ones that most influenced me that I’d recommend are: Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (misfits); Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (mental illness); and I know I’ll be howled down, but To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, because it taught me what a father should teach his children.

    • September 8, 2020 7:55 pm

      Sue (west of the Blue Mountains Sue) while Sue from further south is not looking, just let me say I was tempted to howl, but instead let me just recommend Go Set a Watchman, it might give you a completely new idea of Scout’s father (whose name I forget).

      • Sue permalink
        September 8, 2020 9:53 pm

        Ha! Bill I was waiting for someone to howl! I have read Go Set a Watchman – but TKAM is a novel so I don’t expect Lee to be fully autobiographical.

        It’s tough to choose certain novels as being personally influential because so many have impacted me in so many ways – I just found it surprising that the first to come to mind when reading Sue’s post were all American. I’m still pondering the reasons for that!

        • September 8, 2020 11:41 pm

          Let us know when you fxd the answer Sue . It is interesting. And no Steinbeck in there!

      • September 8, 2020 11:40 pm

        Ha ha Bill. I get cross when Mockingbird is at the top of GAN type lists, but I do like its heart, and don’t plan to read Watchman. Atticus Finch is the name!

    • September 8, 2020 11:38 pm

      NO, commenters don’t have to limit themselves to Australian writers, Sue. I don’t think many world howl you down about Mockingbird would they? Your choices are great.

      • Sue permalink
        September 9, 2020 1:20 pm

        I think it’s the books written with real heart in them that made the biggest impact on me Sue – I once read an essay by Tennessee Williams about his very ill sister (who is the main character in Glass Menagerie) and his love for her was wonderful.

        TKAM is undoubtedly a wonderful novel, it’s one I really cannot fault in any way – I regard it as pretty much the perfect novel. Even the movie was perfect!

        I think I went through a period where I felt I just didn’t fit in somehow (teenagers!) and these books were a powerful influence on me.

  7. September 10, 2020 7:07 am

    I’ve not heard of that term but it sounds an interesting approach. I wish we’d had a broader range of reading options presented when I was at that formative age in school. instead we got fed books that really didn’t speak much to us – like Chaucer and Milton.

    • September 10, 2020 8:33 am

      I’m glad I did those older books Karen, but I think we should have been introduced to more contemporary works too. So many people were put off reading by high school curriculums I think.

  8. September 11, 2020 3:09 pm

    What an interesting article. I enjoyed all the books recommended for younger people, especially ‘Terra Nullius’. I would add too, Macbeth (a text I teach to Year 10s) for its stark messages on power and relying on superstition. Anything by Cate Kennedy. I’ve just read ‘Bruny’ and loved it for its depictions of beautiful Tasmania. As a cautionary tale on climate change and the perils of ignoring dodgy political deals, it’s brilliant. Senior students would love it. For younger readers, is there anything more exciting than, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ or ‘Z for Zachariah’?
    In my 25 years of teaching in rural secondary schools, what I’ve learnt is that students don’t like to be preached to. Made aware, yes – that’s different, but one of their big complaints is against texts which overtly try to teach them a lesson. In that respect, not much has changed from when I went to school.

    • September 11, 2020 4:31 pm

      Thanks Marg. It’s lovely hearing from teachers. I like your suggestions, and I love your expectation that students would love Bruny. It would be a good one to get discussion going, wouldn’t it?

      I don’t know Z for Zachariah.

      I love Macbeth, as I mentioned in my post. It was influential for me. I did it in Fourth Form (Year 10). As well as its messages on Power and Superstition, I would add Ambition.

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