Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookprint, Australian-style

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 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookprint, Australian-style

  1. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

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

        • 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.

        • 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.

        • 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’.

        • 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • 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).

      • 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!

      • 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. 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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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