Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookswapping

Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about bookselling for/by charities. As I was writing it, I realised that there was another way of acquiring books that is worth writing about – book swap arrangements. Not surprisingly, it came up in comments on that post, so is clearly something of interest to many readers. It’s an area that I’m aware of – how could you not be – but not one I use with any regularity, so I’ve enjoyed researching it beyond my limited knowledge. I’m sure commenters will add even more information, for which I thank you in advance!

Book swapping as an informal activity is practised by most readers in some form or another. We share books – sometimes lending them to be returned, other times asking for the book to be passed on. It may not always be exactly one-to-one, but something more informal where we press loved books on each other as we read them. A little bit more formal is that practice in places like youth hostels where travellers leave a book behind that they’ve read, in a communal bookcase, and take one in its place. I still have a book that I picked up that way back in the 1970s. It’s Mordecai Richler’s Shovelling trouble. I love it – and the memories it carries.

In other words, book swapping as I’m describing it here is a pretty loose activity. It happens in multitudinous ways, ranging from the highly informal to the very controlled, from sharing books locally (in just a street, for example) to sharing across and between nations. Some swapping is simply about ensuring we always have something to read – what I’d call reader-to-reader sharing – while other schemes have bigger literary and social justice goals. These aims and styles aren’t always mutually exclusive, but the emphasis tends to fall more into one camp than another, if that makes sense. The activities I list here all fall into the somewhat organised end of the spectrum.


BookCrossing is the first big “organised” system that I came across – and that was back in the early 2000s when I found a book in my workplace cafe. Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” It started in the USA but has become a huge international community, supported by a website and social media platforms.

Markus Zusah, The book thiefAustralia is 7th on the list of the world’s top 10 bookcrossing country according to the BookCrossing website, which is not bad given our size (unless that was measured per capita).   (If you are interested, the top three countries are USA, Germany, United Kingdom.) I won’t say more about this, but if you’ve never heard of it do check out their website. It’s rather fun to see the list of recently released, recently caught, most travelled and most wished for books. I loved seeing, when I checked, that the top book in “the most wished for” list was Markus Zusak’s The book thief (my review).

The Great Book Swap

Coordinated by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the Great Book Swap is a very different kettle of fish. Its aim is to raise money for the Foundation. The idea is for organisations – workplaces, schools, any group at all – to host a book swap, which this year was on Wednesday 6 September. (But, really, you could do it any time. The ILF won’t reject your money). The principle is that people swap books for a gold coin donation. That is, participants bring a book (or books along) and for the right to take a book or book/s away, pay a gold coin donation. So, you get a book to read and the Foundation gets some money. In 2016, the ILF raised $160,000. The money is used to buy books to send to remote indigenous communities.

ILF Ambassador, children’s author Andy Griffiths, describes it thus:

The Great Book Swap is a win-win. Not only does it help raise money to improve literacy levels in remote communities, but the excitement and fun…helps improve literacy levels in your community or organisation…

The Little Big Book Swap

Another literacy focused event is the Little Big Book Swap run by The Little Big Book Club at Raising Literacy Australia. It runs along the same lines as the Great Book Swap, with money going “to support literacy programs and resources for SA families”. Raising Literacy Australia seems to be an Australia-wide organisation, with its vision being “Enriching Australian lives and building communities through literacy”, but this Little Big Book Swap, currently anyhow, says the money is for South Australian families. Hmm … maybe this is just a start of a program they plan to expand.

Street Libraries/Little Free Libraries

You’ve all heard, I’m sure, about street libraries. They are neighborhood book exchanges where passers-by can take a book to read or leave a book for others to find. The Little Free Library is one manifestation of these. It started in the USA in 2009. According to Wikipedia, there were 50,000 registered libraries world-wide. I bet there are many more that are not registered. In Australia, we have an organisation called . I love their description of what they do:

Street Libraries are a beautiful home for books, planted in your front yard. They are accessible from the street, and are an invitation to share the joys of reading with your neighbours.

Street Libraries are a window into the mind of a community; books come and go; no-one needs to check them in or out. People can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends.

If anyone has a book or two that they think others would enjoy, they can just pop it into any Street Library they happen to be walking past.

They are a symbol of trust and hope – a tiny vestibule of literary happiness.

“A tiny vestibule of literary happiness”. I mean, what more could you want? You can register your library on the site, which enables others to find you. You can build your own little library, or you can buy a kit from the website. According to the website, there are 9 in my city. (I should have gone out and photographed one today, shouldn’t I?) The one closest to me is Books for the World (and it just so happens that one of my ACT-litblogger mentees is involved in it!) Another is the Mighty Fine Book Swap in Brisbane. Click on these links to see gorgeous pics, and read about them.


These are some of the “big” initiatives, but I know there are all sorts of book swap arrangements around (including the hostel ones I mentioned in my introduction). Commenter Jeanne on last week’s Monday Musings wrote that

Recently Mildura Library has started a new venture: provide a book swap at Mildura Airport: Are there any other airports that have something similar?

Are there? Anyhow, what a lovely initiative. It’s called, delightfully, Books on the Fly. Being a small regional airport, Mildura Airport does not, I’m guessing, have a bookshop in the terminal, so this provides a lovely service for air-travellers.

Do you use – or contribute to – any book swap arrangements? I’d love to hear about them, whether or not I’ve mentioned them here already. 

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookselling for charity

Old books

Old books (Courtesy: OCAL @

Last week I wrote a Monday Musings about the current, relatively positive, state of play for bookshops in Australia. Responding to that post on Facebook, one of my longstanding friends, and an original member of my bookgroup, reminded me of the Lifeline Bookfair which is held regularly in Canberra, and to which I have donated many books. I didn’t mention Lifeline because that post was about shops selling “new” books. However, she made me realise that while I have also written about secondhand book shops before, I have never specifically written about those organisations which sell books to raise money for charity (or good works). Now is that time …

First, though, a brief comment. A few years ago, knowing that bookselling is the prime fundraiser for some charities, such as Lifeline, I wondered what would happen to their fundraising goals in the new world of digital books. Well, I needn’t have worried. Books are still raising plenty of funds for charities. I’m not the only one, it appears, who still loves the printed book!

Lifeline Bookfair (Canberra)

The most visible seller of books for charity in my city is Lifeline. Lifeline is a national organisation providing 24-hour crisis support, particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of suicide prevention. It relies on volunteers to staff the support phones, and to raise money for the work of the organisation. A major fundraiser in my city – and I think in other parts of Australia – is the Lifeline Bookfair, which is held three times a year. It is hugely successful, and a big-ticket event on Canberra booklovers’ calendars. (Not mine, though. I donate to it, but I stay away! If I ever start to run out of books to read, however, I know where to go!) For Lifeline Canberra, these bookfairs are “the cornerstone” of their “financial strategy”, and currently bring in between $1 to $2 million for the organisation.

As well as the physical book fairs, Lifeline also runs an online service. I should add that besides books, they also sell records, DVDs, CDs, jigsaws and related products. For Mr Gums, Lifeline is a good source for the foreign language books (German, to be precise) that he likes to read.

There are Lifeline organisations throughout Australia and many, if not all, raise funds through booksales. We donated, for example, many books from my Aunt’s estate last year to her nearest Sydney operation.

Brotherhood Books

This is a social enterprise run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence which aims to tackle poverty in Australia. Its bookselling, mainly carried out online but also available through their physical stores in Victoria, is also volunteer run. They say that when you buy books from them

you also keep them out of landfill, reduce your carbon footprint, and support the many worthy charitable programs run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Vinnies and Salvos

St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies) and the Salvation Army (Salvos) run secondhand shops throughout Australia, and sell books at these shops along with clothing and household goods. Both organisations aim to reduce social injustice, particularly poverty.

Vinnies, and probably Salvos, also give books to families in need.


And of course, there’s an array of smaller charities which sell books to support their activities, starting with school, church and hospital fetes and stalls.

Also, the Australian online donations platform, GiveNow, lists a number of organisations which accept donated books, some of these to sell for fundraising (such as Brotherhood Books) and others to distribute to those in need (such as the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation, which is particularly interested in children’s books).

Do you buy from, or donate to, charity booksellers? Please give a shout out to your favourite/s – particularly if I haven’t mentioned them here.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookshops, 2017

It’s been sometime since I’ve talked about bookshops. I missed this year’s National Bookshop Day (now called Love Your Bookshop Day). However, I have been thinking about bookshops. After a flurry of closures, particularly of bookshop chains, in our town, things seem to have settled down. My local mall, in fact, went from losing its two stores, several years ago, to now having two stores again. And, our independent stores around town seem to be holding their own. Is this indicative of something positive happening?

Well, I came across a recent article in The Conversation which suggested that things aren’t as desperate as we were feeling a decade ago. The article, by Nathan Hollier, the Director of Monash Publishing, is titled “Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism”. It opens with the following sentence:

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news.

How nice, eh?

I’ll come back to the article, but of course I wanted to find out more about this year’s Australian Bookseller’s Conference. I didn’t find a lot of substance – in my brief Google search – but I did find some advance notification which listed some of the topics to be discussed:

a session on strategies for sustainability; the launch of National Bookshop Day 2017; a session on how small and independent publishers can work with bookstores to offer customers ‘something different’; a panel on children’s bookselling; and sessions on the state of the industry, ‘analogue marketing’, stock mix, and issues affecting small businesses.

Interesting, particularly given Hollier’s statement that children’s booksales are doing particularly well. He also says that “store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding”. Hmm … the number of stores is stable but these stores are expanding.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from

However, as Hollier points out, there’s a new threat on the horizon, Amazon, which, as most Australian readers probably already know, has bought a big distribution site just outside of Melbourne. Local booksellers, says Hollier, will need to adjust (once again) in an environment “in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.”

In the face of a megastore which can carry huge stock, local booksellers need, as they always have done, to carefully curate their holdings. They will also need to beef up extra services. “Community building will be the order of the day,” says Hollier. However, this curating is harder at a time when review pages in broadsheet newspapers are reducing, because these pages provide booksellers with “a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.” Certainly, in the heyday of newspaper review pages, our local bookshop would be inundated with requests for books which had been reviewed, particularly in the weekend lift-outs.

Hollier also discusses the challenge of lower prices, saying that:

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

He goes on to talk about the challenges for regulation when large firms follow “determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation”.

Muse bookshop

Muse bookshop (before an event)

So, what can local booksellers do? Well, mainly it must be to continue that age-old strategy of customer service. They can stock the books their readers want, “curate” their collections (with new release shelves, local author shelves, genre highlight shelves, and so on), and, as I’m seeing increasingly in my area, offer more author events and talks. While for some readers, the cheapest book is all that matters, for others of us (and perhaps we are the lucky ones who can afford it), the experience of browsing beautiful bookshelves and talking with the owner (or staff) is worth the extra few dollars the books might cost. It feels good to support a bricks-and-mortar shop.

Anyhow, Hollier says that the bottom line is for people to have the desire and time (oh yes) to read. This desire, he says,

rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society.

Oh boy, isn’t this true! In this sense, he concludes, we get “the books and bookshops we deserve”. If this is so, then it seems that readers are turning things around, are showing that it is real bookshops that we want. May the current apparently positive state-of-play continue and grow, eh?

Have you noticed changes in the bookshop landscape in your neck of the woods?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (1)

Research can send you off on all sorts of tangents – particularly if don’t have to be focused. What fascinating things you can find when you go with the flow (in the wonderful Trove)! It started with my recent post on Currawong Press, which, somewhat serendipitously, led to a post on books published in The Australian Women’s Weekly. It also led to this one on literary (or reading) tastes in 1920s to 1940s Australia, through an article published in the Sun in 1947 which mentioned the strange fact that some books by Currawong Press on taxation had become best-sellers almost overnight, but it said a lot more too …

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckHowever, let me introduce the topic. That Sun article set me off on a trail which uncovered several articles discussing the public’s literary tastes, and how and why the “experts” thought they were changing. The experts were mostly librarians and booksellers. In 1929, The Sydney Morning Herald asked the large circulating libraries whether they’d seen changes from the previous year’s borrowing. Yes, said the librarians. They noted:

  • a changing of the guard in popular authors, but since none of the names – except one – are familiar to me, I won’t detail them. The one I did recognise was identified as “rapidly approaching the status of best-sellers”, Georgina Heyer! Well, I sort of recognised her, as presumably they meant Georgette Heyer. Her books would have been gaining traction around then, and I can’t find a Georgina.
  • a decline in the “sex-novel”, and also in plays. “Once upon a time every play published by Pinero and other popular dramatists sold almost as well as a novel”. How interesting.
  • increased interest in detective and mystery stories, and historical novels
  • increased interest in short story collections. Woo hoo! They write that “a very few years ago publishers hesitated to bring out volumes of short stories. That is all changed now.” Is an increased interest happening again now do you think?
  • increased sales of “standard works” (in “pocket editions”). They were “selling so amazingly well that there is almost evidence enough to show that the general public is being weaned from the frothier varieties of books”

What a fascinating insight into reading habits. I have no idea how “scientific” these observations were, but librarians are very trustworthy people, you know!

The Sunday Mail in 1932 explored changing tastes in detective fiction, arguing that “the reader of to-day wants to pit his brains against those of the detective, and so the mystery novel is assuming more and more the aspect of a mental problem”. When asked, Brisbane booksellers and librarians:

emphasised that there are “thrillers” and “thrillers,” detective stories and detective stories. The popularity of the detective thriller of the Edgar Wallace type, it was explained, was on the decline even before the death of that undoubted master, but not so the intellectual “thriller.”

They describe in some detail what makes an “intellectual thriller”.

The article also mentions increased interest in Australian books, and notes the surprising popularity of Swedish physician Axel Munthe’s The story of San Michele. It apparently “emerged from obscurity into something like the status of a best seller, all because a few people allowed themselves the pleasure of reading it ‘on chance’.” The booksellers said that bestsellers of “today are 100 per cent superior in literary merit to the bestsellers of five and six years ago”. This was the Depression era … I wonder what impact that had on reading tastes.

This idea of improved public taste was repeated in 1933 in an article in the Horsham Times which reported a statement by visiting English publisher John Lane, from Bodley Head. He said

there had been an improvement in the literary taste of the reading public throughout the world, and the demand among the great body of the public to-day was for clean healthy stories and plain dirt had little sale.

I’m not sure that “clean healthy stories” are guaranteed to be “literary”, but probably “plain dirt” isn’t? Lane suggests that “cheap lending libraries [presumably in England] were responsible for changing the literary tastes of readers in the industrial classes from the penny story magazine to volumes, and would eventually raise the literary standard of the masses”. Oh dear, this sounds a bit snooty, but I do like his belief that libraries were helping widen people’s reading tastes.

Now we jump t0 1937, with the Depression on its way out, and an article in Melbourne’s Argus titled “Novels are less popular”. It says that demand was changing, with “tastes more serious”. This came from Melbourne librarians who said that the borrowing of novels had decreased from 75% of their loans to 65%. Prahran Library chief librarian gave a reason for this:

The uncertainty of the international situation in Europe, he said, was resulting in many former readers of fiction asking for such books as Gunthe’s “Inside Europe,” and other works on economics and politics. The depression had made borrowers’ tastes more serious, and there was a growing demand for books on the trades and useful arts.

Interesting eh? Sometimes we hear that in hard times people turn to lighter fare, but apparently not always. Except, the report continues:

The [unnamed] chief librarian at a large city library said that with the return of more prosperous times many persons who had been forced to read during the depression were now finding their relaxation and amusement at the cinema. There had been a large decline in the borrowing of low grade fiction.

Hmm, there’s that “low grade fiction” again. And “forced to read during the depression” suggests that reading was not the entertainment of choice then (as that reader survey says it is in contemporary Australia)? The article quotes the librarian of the Borough of St Pancreas London as also attributing “the decline in the popularity of the novel to the appeal of wireless and cinemas”.

Anyhow, now we come to the 1947 article in Sydney’s Sun which inspired this post. Titled “Tastes in books were changing”, it looks at bookbuying in the lead up to that year’s Christmas.  It opens by stating that “book-buying boom, which began in the war years, is being maintained in the peace”. Booksellers said that:

  • War books were generally “out”, with some exceptions. However, publishers felt that war books would return just as the publication of All Quiet On the Western Front had generated renewed interest in World War 1
  • “Thrillers” were also declining, and “the sale of Westerns was negligible”
  • Australian books were popular, with most booksellers “displaying Australian books on special counters” (something we discussed recently). One firm reported that the sale of Australian books had doubled in recent years: the “First edition of Flying Doctor Calling, by Ernestine Hill (Angus and Robertson), sold out in a week. An Australian classic that keeps on selling and selling is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson.”
  • Long historical novels were in “big demand”
  • Books about Australia and other countries were very popular. A bookseller suggested that “The quiz craze may have something to do with this thirst for knowledge among Australians”. (Love the quiz craze!)
  • European migrants were keen book buyers, buying “expensive books on politics, art, music
  • Children’s books were selling well, perhaps partly due to “the high price of toys”

The article also discussed the increasing cost of books, but said people were paying the high prices “without demur”. It also noted that “unfortunately for Australian authors the boom in Australian books” had coincided with “unprecedented publishing difficulties”, which they describe in some detail. The situation was so bad that “Some local publishers are more than a year behind in their programmes and there isn’t much likelihood of catching up for a long time to come. Dozens of accepted Australian manuscripts are awaiting publication.” Poor writers.

Through these articles, there’s an ongoing thread of concern about “literary quality”. Do we see this same earnestness about whether people are reading “quality” in book reporting today? Or, are we more tolerant of diverse reading interests?

Not the Usual Monday Musings

Sense and sensibility book covers

Printed and eBooks for Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility

Just for a change – and because I couldn’t resist it – I’m sharing an ad from ABE Books for a first edition 3-volume set of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility, which was first published in 1811. In case you are interested, the inventory number for the book is #ABE-11685473745.

I’m going to quote the ad in full on the assumption that this doesn’t break copyright. Surely one ad does not represent a significant portion of ABE Books’ intellectual content, and anyhow, as sellers, they presumably want their message to be out and about.

As the person who brought the ad to my attention said, this is a seller with attitude. Here goes:

3 vols. 1st edition, whispering in a voice quieter than decency, that the days that make us happy are the days that set us free. 19th century 3/4 morocco. A fine set, cleaner than fresh air, and it’s a complete one too with all 3 genuine half-titles, and though this 1st edition is regularly stalked by all collectors, it has a history of amplified appeal to those who are women, so heed this ladies: Buying a 1st edition of Sense and Sensibility without authentic half-titles is more dangerous than open-knife night at the blow fish bar, and more naïve than sexting your face and your kitty in the same picture. Ex-3 significant women collectors (bookplates) of élan who deserve snaps, Dorothy Stewart, Pamela Kingzett, and Sarah Peter, the last named of the 3, a modern goddess who gathered her 1st editions of fiction in English by women, 1 book at a time, and now stands tall with the greatest collection of them ever assembled. By anyone. Anywhere.

Austen invented modern romantic comedy beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and started schooling 7 generations of readers about the intricate convolutions of affection. What they learned from it right away is that all tests of love end badly, that excitement and familiarity are hard to find in one person, that the first duty of love is to listen, and that when the heart speaks, the mind should know it’s tacky to object. In the 20th century they came to understand that the only real proof of love is trust, that sometimes there are more differences within the genders than between them, that love must be transformed from the flame at first into the light that lasts, and that all men fall somewhere between apes and gods, and the best a wise woman can hope to do, is pick one that’s traveling in the right direction. Now we’re in the 21st century and a new generation of readers just balance Austen’s charm against the realities of daily life, appreciating that “desperate” is not a sexual preference, that the fastest way to improve a relationship is to see love as a verb rather than a feeling, and that a woman can find a blunt equality with men by going to therapy, where she can talk about herself for an hour, just like a guy on a date

Don’t you love this  – particularly the ad writer’s understanding of what Austen was (is) about? I reckon Jane Austen would have.

On the literary road, in Ontario

I’m back from my North American trip and, as you can tell, didn’t find much time to post while I was there. It was a packed three and a half weeks, catching up with our daughter, sightseeing, and meeting people, many of whom I’d got to know via online reading groups. I didn’t find much time (or, indeed, energy) to read, but would like to share some literary tidbits from our trip.

Chapters Indigo Bookshop

Canadian authors stand, Chapters Indigo, Eaton Centre, Toronto

I had hoped to check out a local independent bookshop or two but things – including weather that didn’t encourage meandering – conspired against me, so the only bookshop I visited in the end was a chain, Chapters Indigo. I was intrigued to see how much it had diversified into all sorts of products, including personal and household goods. I guess this is how a bookshop survives these days. My main aim in visiting was, of course, to check out Canadian authors. Unfortunately the shop, while fine in its way, was just like a chain. The staff did their best but were not really able to provide the sort of advice I wanted, like, you know, the names of Canadian authors besides the well-known ones like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They had a lot of the latter’s books, the willing sales assistant said, since she’d just won the Pulitzer! I didn’t bother to correct him but simply smiled, because he had done his best –  and then I noticed that we were actually standing next to a little display stand of just what we were looking for, that is, a stand in which all the books were tagged “Canadian author” and were all new authors to me! I was attracted to Circus, a book of short stories by Claire Battershill, but didn’t buy it then. Instead, I bought a book by another author I know, Margaret Laurence, for Ma Gums.

Toronto Book Awards

photo 2 croppedAnd then, quite serendipitously on the same day, my daughter and I were walking down Queen Street West and walked right over plaques embedded in the pavement for the Toronto Book Awards Authors Walk of Fame. The awards were established by the City of Toronto in 1974 and are awarded each year for the year’s best fiction or non-fiction book or books “that are evocative of Toronto”. All shortlisted authors receive $1000, with the winning author receiving an extra $10000.

I was intrigued to see that one of the winners of the first award – in the early years there were often multiple winners – was William Kurelek whose art we’d come across at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the book he won for is called O Toronto which contained his series of paintings of Toronto. The other two inaugural winners were historian Desmond Morton’s Mayor Howland and novelist Richard Wright’s In the middle of a life. I have his best known work, Clara Callan, on my TBR pile.

William Campbell

We visited Toronto’s historic Campbell House, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell from 1822 until he died in 1834. His Georgian-style house is the oldest surviving building from the original town of York, but the reason I am including him here is that he presided in 1826 over the trial of the rioters who destroyed William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press on which he printed his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The house museum suggests the case is a significant early test for freedom of the press in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become a politician, and in 1834, the first mayor of the new city of Toronto (as York was renamed when it was incorporated).

Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival theatre, Stratford

This festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespearean and then Shakespeare Festival, is, according to Wikipedia, an internationally-recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to October in Stratford, which is about 2-hours drive west of Toronto. It’s a very pretty little town, on the Avon River, and has a replica Globe Theatre. I was intrigued to discover yet another Shakespeare based or inspired festival. They seem to abound, and Wikipedia has quite a list of them. Many, like this one, don’t  focus exclusively on Shakespeare but his works form their backbone. Daughter Gums has been a keen attendee over the last two years of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and several of my online reading group friends love the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But back to Stratford. I was given a beautiful coffee table book, Robert Cushman’s Fifty seasons at Stratford, by Emmy whom I met for the first time on this trip but have “known” for many years through online reading groups. The book is organised chronologically with each chapter named for that period’s artistic director. And, it has an introduction by another Canadian author I’ve read, Timothy Findley, who acted at the very first festival at Stratford in 1953. The first director was Tyrone Guthrie, and some of the actors Findley worked alongside were Alex Guinness, Irene Worth and Douglas Campbell. This was clearly no amateur undertaking! Cushman, in his preface, mentions that another Canadian novelist (I’ve read), Robertson Davies, had played a role in establishing the Festival, had been on its board, and had written about its early history. This is a gorgeously produced book, with an excellent index and a chronological list at the back of every play performed at the festival from 1953 to 2002.

… and now, with jet lag making its presence felt, that is about all I have for you tonight, but at least I have given you a taste of some of the things that have occupied my mind over the past three weeks or so.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Top Aussie book sales in 2013

This is, I suppose, another end of year round-up post – but one about bookselling in Australia, which is something I don’t usually write much about. However, since many of us love lists, I thought I’d share with you Australia’s top selling books for 2103:

  1. Jeff Kinney: Hard luck: Diary of a wimpy kid (UK, children’s)
  2. Jamie Oliver: Jamie’s 15 minute meals (UK, cookbook)
  3. Dan Brown: Inferno (US, fiction)
  4. Jamie Oliver: Save with Jamie (UK, cookbook)
  5. Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton: The 39-storey treehouse (Aus, children’s)
  6. Matthew Reilly: The tournament (Aus, fiction)
  7. Guinness world records 2014 (UK, reference)
  8. Sarah Wilson: I quit sugar (Aus, nonfiction)
  9. Ricky Ponting: Ponting at close of play (Aus, memoir)
  10. Jodi Picoult: The storyteller (USA, fiction)

It’s good to see some Aussies there, including popular children’s author Andy Griffiths and illustrator Terry Denton. I haven’t read Matthew Reilly but he has a reputation as a good story-teller in, mostly, the action and thriller genres.

Jason Steger, the Literary Editor of The Age and a regular panelist on the First Tuesday Bookclub, says of this year’s top ten:

The pulse rates of Australian readers were probably a bit slower last year, as the boom in erotic and dystopic fiction vanished, and old favourites such as Jamie Oliver, Jeff Kinney, Dan Brown and Matthew Reilly returned to dominate the national bestseller lists.

He is of course referring to the 2012 phenomena of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Apparently, without these juggernauts, overall sales were down in 2013 over 2012. According to Steger, the overall number of books sold dropped from 56.6 million to 54.1 million, resulting in a drop in value from $978 million to $917 million. Interesting isn’t it? What does this say about reading behaviour? That some people only read when a “huge” book appears on the scene. If everyone’s reading it, they will too, but otherwise reading is not for them? Is that the conclusion to draw from those figures, or am I missing something?

I can’t seem to find the fiction top ten for the year. I’m assuming that you have to pay Nielsen to get this information, but it seems telling that, while newspapers have reported (via journalists Blanche Clark and Jason Steger) on the overall top 10, no-one has listed, at least as far as I can find via Google, the fiction-specific list. The best that I could find was Steger, again, who reported that Tim Winton’s Eyrie (which I’ll be reading this year) was the best-performing literary novel. That says something about the Winton’s pull, as Eyrie wasn’t published until mid-October. Steger also reports that the Australian debut novels, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (which I’ll also be reading this year) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (my review), both made the fiction top ten.  This is not surprising as they were probably the two biggest buzz books in the Australian literary firmament this year. However, I’m assuming that Steger’s singling out of these three books means that they are the only Aussies in the top to fiction list – and this means that the Miles Franklin award winning Questions of travel is not there.

None of this is earth shattering. We literary fiction readers know that the books we read rarely make general top 10s. It’s always interesting, however, to see what does. Were there any top 10 surprises in your neck of the woods?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Translated fiction, Australian-style

Having just read and reviewed Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly essay, Lost in translation: In praise of a plural world, I thought I’d research the state of translated fiction in Australia. Jaivin doesn’t spend a lot of time of this particular issue, but in her concluding plea she says:

Publishers need to consider how to prise open their lists in order to let more translation in.

In other words, while she argues that students should learn foreign language/s, she also recognises that we can’t be across all languages. We should therefore have easy access to translated literature. However, in my experience and I’m sure that of Australian blogger Tony, who specialises in translated fiction, it is not easy to find material here and so, all too often, we turn to overseas publishers and distributors.

That said, there are some local sources of translated fiction. And there are – and have been – Australian translators of foreign fiction (besides, of course, Linda Jaivin). I have written before on this blog about poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell who translated Russian poetry into English.

The easiest type of translated fiction to find in Australia is of course the classics. It is not hard to find Russian, French and other classics in English in most decent bookshops. It is also relatively easy to find translated works by the better-known contemporary writers from non-English cultures. Random House Australia, for example, has published Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. But they do not make it easy to find their translated books. They categorise fiction by genre/form, so if you search under crime, say, you will find translated works by, for instance, the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. It should be easy enough for them to add a category for translated works to help those of us who’d like to seek out non-English-centric works.

Many of Australia’s smaller independent publishers also publish translated fiction. For example, Text Publishing, probably the largest of the small presses, is currently publishing Diego Marani (whose The last of the Vostyachs I reviewed recently). On Text’s Fiction page is the category Translated, which takes readers to a list of around 60 titles.

Other small presses publishing translated works include:

  • Brandl + Schlesinger lists translated works as one of its focuses. Its list includes Russian author Igor Gelbach, and Hungarians István Örkény and György Dalos.
  • Giramondo specialises in “innovative fiction” and, while it is one of the smaller publishing houses, it includes translated fiction in its list including a work by French-Australian Catherine Rey.
  • Scribe, which has won the Small Publisher of the Year award four times since 2006, publishes foreign language authors such as Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker. Bakker won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Twin, which is one of his books published by Scribe.

I have to admit that I don’t know all these authors, but it’s great to know they are here!

As I was researching for this post, I came across the website for the Australian bookseller, Booktopia. Of course, as an Australian reader, I’ve known about them for some time, but I was pleasantly surprised when they popped up in my Google search for “translated fiction Australia”. Booktopia, I discovered, do, like Text Publishing, include translated fiction in their side-bar categories though, intriguingly, the click-through categorisation goes like this:

|- Fiction
|- – Fiction in Translation and Short Stories (in a box labelled Subjects)
|- – – Fiction in Translation

Odd, that, the grouping of “Fiction in Translation” and “Short Stories” but at least Booktopia provides a path for readers to find translated works. Go Booktopia I say! They currently have 1862 titles in their list. There’s a lot of crime there, but they also carry classics, popular contemporary fiction (by such writers as Allende and Zafón), and books from independent publishers like Peirene Press, which is well regarded as a publisher of European literature in translation.

It’s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but why not include some translated works in your summer (or holiday) reading plan? Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of sourcing and reading translated literature.

Ann Patchett, The bookshop strikes back (Review)

I’m not normally an impulse buyer except, it seems, when I visit the bookshop at the National Library of Australia! I tell myself I’m not interested in little books – you know, the sort bookshops put on their sales counters – but somehow the National Library of Australia regularly manages to break down my resolution. Last year I reviewed Dorothy Porter‘s On passion which I bought from their counter. Today, I’m going to write about Ann Patchett‘s essay “The bookshop strikes back”.

My purchase went like this. I was standing at the counter a few days ago making my purchases when this tiny little 20-page off-white booklet caught my eye. I picked it up, and said to the bookseller, “This looks interesting”. “Oh yes”, she said, “we had them in for National Bookshop Day?” Well, I knew then what I had to do …

I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard that the book was dead, but I think it was back in the 1970s when it was argued that the easy availability of video would spell the end of reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was said when movies appeared, when radio came on the scene, and so on. Surprisingly, though, books seem to survive! Except, it’s not surprising to us readers is it?

Books are facing a new challenge in our digital world – but, so far, the main issue seems to be more about the form of the book (as in print vs digital) than the survival of reading. However, bookshops do seem to be at risk. Ann Patchett suddenly found one day that her town, Nashville, Tennessee, no less, had no bookshops (other than a used bookshop and stores like Target). Apparently the last one to go – an independent that had been bought out by a chain – had been profitable “but not profitable enough”. Patchett’s discovery, albeit on a smaller scale, replicates the situation at my local mall, which is one of my city’s main shopping centres. Fortunately, though, we do have some great bookshops in other parts of the city.

Patchett doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the whys, though the prevailing view seems to be that the combination of online bookselling giants like Amazon and the rise of e-books are causing the demise of bookshops – both chain stores and the independents. But, Ann Patchett believes things may be changing. She writes:

… all things happen in a cycle, I explained – the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore.  Seeing the potential for profit, chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realised what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.

This may be a little simplistic but history does have a habit of repeating itself doesn’t it! So Patchett, who was later “dizzied by the blitheness that stood in place of any business sense”, established, with two other women,  a new independent bookshop in Nashville … and found that on book tours for her most recent book, State of wonder, interviewers were more interested in asking her about her bookshop plans than about her book. She laughs that on the day the bookshop opened in November 2011, the New York Times ran a story with a picture of her on page A1, something that her agent and publisher would never expect to achieve on the basis of her role as a literary novelist.

This is not a highly analytical essay, but it’s a lovely read about the love of books and bookshops. It provides a nice contrast to the fascinating but ultimately sad story of a bookshop I read a few years ago – Annette Freeman’s semi-self-published Tea in the library. Freeman, like many booklovers, dreamed of having a bookshop – one in which readers could come, buy books, stay for a cuppa, and meet authors. She had a lovely vision, but it failed after a couple of years, something she explores openly and honestly in her book.

For Patchett though, so far so good. She’s not sure why they’ve been successful but she says

my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible.

I hope she’s right – but I guess for her to be so, we need more brave (or blithe) booksellers and more readers who want the personal touch, because, after all, we are in this together.

Ann Patchett
“The bookshop strikes back”
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
ISBN: 9781408847497
Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, November 2012
To appear in This is the story of a happy marriage (Bloomsbury, later 2013)
Available: Online at Atlantic Monthly

National Bookshop Day the Third

Today is – though it’s almost over – National Bookshop Day. Last year I wrote a Monday Musings post on Australia’s second National Bookshop Day. It’s good to see that the momentum continues.

In last year’s post I named some of my favourite local bookshops – and nothing has changed in that regard except that Smith’s Alternative Bookshop has reinvented itself as an arts event venue but still with some books and a bookish focus.

So, this year, I thought I’d give a guernsey to my favourite second-hand bookshop. I don’t buy a lot of secondhand books, but when I do (or when I want to sell), I go to Beyond Q in Curtin. It has an extensive range of fiction, including classic Australian fiction, as well as a wonderful collection of old Penguins. Mr Gums likes the shop for its small collection of foreign language books, so we visit there every time he’s finished his latest German book. The collection is eclectic, and includes books originally published in other languages and translated into German – such as books by Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. These often best suit Mr Gums’ competent but not expert German skills.

But there are other reasons we go to Beyond Q, because it is more than a bookshop. It also has a lovely little cosy cafe and offers live music most Friday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons (with entry via donation requested). It’s a happening little place in suburban Canberra, and we like it.

So, happy National Bookshop Day to my favourite bookshops … and I just want to let you know that as far as I’m concerned, every day is bookshop day!