Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List

The Grattan Institute is an Australian non-aligned, public policy think tank that was established in 2008. Since 2009 it has published, at the end of the year, their Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List. This list, as they wrote on the inaugural 2009 list, comprises “books and articles that the Prime Minister, or any Australian interested in public debate, will find both stimulating and cracking good reads”.

The first two lists contained 8 titles, but since then it has been 6. A curious number, but then, any number would be arbitrary, so why not? Literary editor, Jason Steger, shared the 2022 list last week, and provided some interesting background. This included sharing Grattan’s chief executive Danielle Wood’s explanation that they “try to pick books that have something interesting, original, or thought-provoking to say on issues that are relevant to the Australian policy landscape. The books don’t have to be by local writers or about Australia … but they do have to address issues that have relevance in an Australian policy context.” 2022’s list, which will be formally launched on 8 December, has two books by Americans.

Steger says that no-one knows, usually, whether the Prime Minister reads any of the recommendations. Grattan rarely receives a thank-you letter from the PMs, which is poor. Don’t they have minders to do those things? Isn’t it good manners to thank people for gifts? One Prime Minister, though, has shown interest. Wood told Steger that:

We did hear from one. It was Malcolm [Turnbull]. He asked for the books to be couriered to his holiday home rather than the Lodge and I think he read at least some of them that year. He was probably the most receptive PM to the idea of the list.

Here is the 2022 list in their order, with a small excerpt from their reasoning:

  • Career & family: Women’s century-long journey toward equity, by Claudia Goldin (American researcher on gender economics; nonfiction): “essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the barriers to gender equality – and how we got here”.
  • We come with this place, by Debra Dank (First Nations Australian writer; memoir): “As Australia contemplates a Voice to Parliament, this book reminds us to listen. Listen when the land tells her story. Hear the voices of the traditional owners”.
  • My father and other animals, by Sam Vincent (Australian journalist/writer; memoir): “about regeneration, sustainability, and legacy… a story of how a son learns about his own family, just as much as how he learns to become a farmer”. 
  • Cold enough for snow, by Jessica Au (Australian author; novella): “an inner journey, arriving at the realisation that some gaps can never be bridged, some people will never be fully understood, and some baggage will never fully be shed. And that whether we are ready or not, time carries us forward, forcing our roles to adjust to new circumstances”. (On my TBR; Reviews by Lisa and Brona.)
  • Buried Treasure (in Griffith Review, 77), by Jo Chandler (Australian journalist; essay): on Australia’s million-year ice core project, “a beautiful and hopeful essay about building a collaborative understanding of the rhythms of our planet”
  • Healing: Our path from mental illness to mental health, by Thomas R. Insel (American doctor; nonfiction): “offers a hopeful vision of how we can remake our mental healthcare system”.

So, one work of fiction, one essay, two memoirs and two works of nonfiction.

Here are links to all the lists, by year: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. There are some interesting books in there, of which I’m sharing one or two from each year, in listing year order:

  • Chloe Hooper’s The tall man (2009, creative nonfiction) 
  • David Malouf’s Ransom (2009, novella) (my review)
  • Noel Pearson’s Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (Quarterly Essay 35) (2009, essay) 
  • Andrew Leigh, Disconnected (2010, nonfiction)
  • Judith Brett’s Fair share (Quarterly Essay 42) (2011, essay)
  • Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (2011, novel) (my review)
  • Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 (2012, creative nonfiction) 
  • Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (2013, novel) (my review)
  • Joan London’s The golden age (2014, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s Love poems and death threats (2015, poetry collection)
  • Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (2016, nonfiction/memoir) (my review)
  • Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017, political biography) (Nathan’s review)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (2017, novel) (my review)
  • Robbie Arnott’s Flames (2018, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018, memoir)
  • Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (2019, nonfiction) (my review)
  • Alex Miller’s Max (2020, novel) (Lisa’s review)
  • Alison Whittaker’s Fire front: First Nations poetry and power today (2020, poetry anthology) (Brona’s review)
  • Paige Clark, She is haunted (2021, short story collection)
  • Rick Morton’s On money (2021, nonfiction)
  • Henry Reynolds’ Truth-telling: History, sovereignty, and the Uluru Statement (2021, nonfiction) (Janine’s review)

I’m particularly interested in the fiction choices, because they have often gone for non-mainstream, more reflective works, and they have also, on occasion, included poetry. I like that. But, why these particular choices?

Well, for Ransom, they write “it’s a tale of transformations” and “if only government reports were written in language like this”. For Cold light, a more obvious choice, they say it’s “about power, secrecy, the mortal struggle between capitalism and communism – and urban planning” and conclude with:

Frank Moorhouse once lamented the fact that, despite all their riches of human experience, Australian novelists had disdained the realms of government and business as ciphers too corrupt and foul for their art. But writing by journalists, academics and policy wonks cannot provide a complete understanding of our society. Fiction also has a vital role; for some readers, the vital role…

For readers like us, I’d say.

The other comment I’d like to make concerns themes and subject matter. Equality – gender equality, yes, but also more broadly – features often. First Nations authors and issues appear regularly, as they should while so much remains unresolved. Books about democracy and how it is faring also keep popping up, unsurprisingly. On the other hand, climate change and the environment, while they do appear, seem to have a relatively low profile in the list by comparison.

If you had the opportunity to make one recommendation to the leader of your country, what would it be? My guess is that Bill’s would be Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony. Let’s see if I’m right. Meanwhile, what will Albo read?

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List

  1. It’s a bit cheeky calling it the Prime Minister’s List when it’s really a Suggested Reading List for the PM. Lots of the books I’d suggest have made previous lists, although I would like to see something in there written from a child’s voice (some early Sofie Laguna – Eye of the Sheep – perhaps?) – something to highlight the importance of breaking the cycle of abuse.

    • Thanks Kate … yes, good suggestion. Thanks so much for playing along.

      I sort of take your point re the title, but I think this is sort of common practice – Under 5s Reading List or Reading List for Under 5s! Sometimes it’s written one way and sometimes the other? Anyhow, why not be cheeky, eh!

    • I agree with your cheeky comment! In fact, I was confused when Sue mentioned the PM sending a thank you card. I was thinking, “Why would they send a thank you card after curating their own list?” Then, I understood it.

      If I had to recommend one book to Joe Biden, it would be Night of the Living Trekkeis Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall. I always assume presidents should read something to chill out. Presidenting is hard.

      • Haha Melanie … so interesting this ambiguity – and thanks for playing along. I agree chilling out reads should be a part of their diet. I can’t imagine their lives and all the stuff they have to read and remember.

  2. Thanks for all the links, Sue.
    TBH, I’m not sure about this list, the idea of it, that is, and naming it the way they have.
    It implies that it’s a list that a PM has chosen, similar in concept to Obama’s reading lists, but it’s not. And it’s very worthy. It’s a list that will-be-good-for-you, a literary prescription with the PM’s name attached to it.
    PMs, like any other parliamentarian, like any other Australian ought to be well-read, and up to speed on issues that matter. But I think, that for summer, they deserve a break and should enjoy a beach read like the rest of us!
    Listening to Tony Burke addressing the ASA, he is so widely read and so familiar with OzLit, I’d love him to put out a list like Obama used to…

    • Haha Lisa … Kate made the same point about the titling, but as I said you often find lists called. the Under 5’s Reading List OR Reading List for Under 5s. BUt I take your point that it ccan be ambiguous.

      I should say that in some of the introductory matter they say something like this, as they said on the first one in 2009:

      “The list is not intended to be comprehensive, nor do we endorse every word, nor do we suggest that this is all our leaders should read over the summer. For example, we hope that they – if so inclined – read something simply for the pleasure of reading, whether poetry, fiction, history, or palaeontology.”

      They don’t “expect” the PM to read them all, and it is also intended for all Australians interested in public policy. It’s a sort of here are some books that encouraing thinking about the year’s issues, but by naming it this way they are suggesting the political value of such reading. At least, that’s how I read it. In other words, it’s meant both literally (here, PM, have a look at these) but also symbolically.

  3. I probably would have recommended Another Day in the Colony.
    It’s clear no PM has ever read No Friend but the Mountains, or the concentration camps would have been closed on the spot out of shame. So let me recommend this year Freedom Only Freedom an essay collection to which Behrouz Boochani is a contributor and the focus.

    • Ah yes, good one, Bill … I was pleased to see his book in the relevant year’s list but as you say, I’d be surprised if any of the pollies with power read it. Thanks for this suggestion. I’ll add it to my own list!

  4. This is a really interesting idea (though I also assumed it was a reading list by the PM, like Obama’s reading list), and it has me wondering what I would recommend to politicians in the UK for their summer reading list! I like the idea of a reading list for people interested in public policy via this mechanism. I listen to podcasts about policy-making and have a general interest in the subject, but it’s still quite difficult to find policy-centred books. This year my recommendation for our PM would be Municipal Dreams, which is about the history of housing policy in the UK – probably not the most vital issue the country is dealing with right now but one that’s at least easier to address than some of the others.

    • Oh thanks very much Lou. Love that you have played along with a suggestion for your own country. Housing policy is one of the big issues here at the moment. I would probably put First Nations and Climate Change first, but I think Housing is close behind along with Gender issues.

      Fascinating that you too would have read the meaning of the list differently. The ambiguity of language, eh?

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