Monday musings on Australian literature: Libraries and librarians in Australian fiction

I only have myself to blame! I asked for readers to suggest topics they’d like to see in Monday Musings and two suggestions came back, one from novelist Angela Savage asking for a post on libraries and librarians in Australian fiction. Her request was inspired by her recent appointment as the CEO of Public Libraries Victoria. I was interested, but it’s not an easy subject to research …

However, before I get to the post proper, I must share this article that Paula (Book Jotter) included in her Winding Up the Week post: “Since the pandemic, an Australian library called 8,000 elderly patrons just to check in”. What this Victorian public library service did is inspiring.

Now, my post … most us probably know some of the famous novels which feature libraries and/or librarians, like Umberto Eco’s The name of the rose and Carlos Luis Zafon’s The shadow of the wind, but how many of us remember libraries and librarians in Australian novels? It’s hard, but here is a selection.

Wendy Scarfe, Hunger TownIn many cases, authors refer to libraries or librarians positively, often to establish a character as thoughtful, considered, intelligent, open-minded. Craig Silvey’s Charlie in Jasper Jones (my review), for example, visits the local library early in the novel, when he is at loose ends. He’s comfortable there – like “visiting an elderly aunt” – and he knows how to use it, from genre books to newspapers.

Wendy Scarfe’s librarian, Joe Pulham in Hunger town (my review), introduces her protagonist, Judith, to the Aristotelian idea of living moderately. There is also a librarian in Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review). His protagonist finds himself in jail, and while there becomes an avid reader. Tsiolkas, perhaps partly self-mockingly, has the prison librarian comment on Danny’s reading choices:

‘Why are you always buried in those old farts?’ Danny would accept the teasing good-naturedly for he knew it was apt. Contemporary writers annoyed him, he found their worlds insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic.

The point, though, is that Danny’s becoming a reader is a positive thing in his development as a thinking person.

Book coverIn the opening chapter of Shokoofeh Azar’s The enlightenment of the greengage tree (my review), our narrator’s brother dies in a fire started by revolutionaries in the father’s library. Here the point is that our narrator’s family comprises educated progressive thinkers, just the sort of people abhorred by the leaders of Iran’s 1979 Revolution. A more famous personal library occurs in Markus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) in which young Liesel steals books from the local mayor’s wife’s library. For Leisel, the library evokes a calm, safe place, as well as a place of words whose power, she understands, can do ill and good.

Elizabeth Jolley’s grandmother protagonist in The orchard thieves (my review) ponders, on her way home from the library, the value of libraries to people who may never have had an opportunity to use them. She thinks about intruders and muggers:

… she might be held at knife point by someone in the street. She would offer all she had in her purse, small change, pension cheque and the library-book tickets. There would be absolutely no need for the villain to either strangle or stab her in order to snatch her purse. She would hold it out to him and tell him he could have it and be off. She would tell him this in plain words. The library-book tickets might even make a changed man of him, especially if he had never had a chance to use a public lending library during a life with all the deprivation brought about by being on the run.

This is quintessential Jolley (whose husband, you may know, was a university librarian.)

Book coverJolley talks about library-book tickets, prerequisites for borrowing library books. Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Cafe features another library based on a private collection – The Charles Dickens Library, which is classified as a “national treasure” – but there’s also reference to a library-book reading barmaid who gets “so bored” on her days off “when there’s nothing to read”. I haven’t read this novel, but the excerpts on Google Books show me it’s another delightful, cheeky Bird. Commenting on Angela’s request for this post, Carmel also mentioned her novel The white garden. GoodReads describes it as follows:

Carmel Bird’s examination of the secrets of the human mind is a chronicle of tragedy that is inadvertently revealed in the search for a lost library book.

Sometimes, authors describe library buildings. Steve Toltz does in Quicksand (my review). His character is sent by a bookshop to the local public library, which, when he gets there, is a “bland underwhelming brick building behind the train station” (though – phew – the library does come up with the goods). Later, he is taken to “an abandoned-looking prison courtyard reminiscent of a library on Sunday”. Hmmm, these images of libraries don’t posit them as inviting places, but Toltz’s novel is satirical, so perhaps it’s good that he thinks libraries are worth noticing?

Dymphna Cusack, JungfrauDymphna Cusack also mentions a library building in her debut novel Jungfrau (my review), when her young university student character passes one in a distressed state:

The palms swayed under the light like green fountains in the wind, and their shadows danced grotesquely on the walls of the Public Library.

Why choose the library in particular? Perhaps because this between-the-wars novel is about three young women enjoying new freedoms for women, something that libraries could be seen to epitomise.

I’ve only dipped my toes into this topic. There are many more libraries and librarians out there in Australian novels – David Malouf’s Johnno, for example, which I read long ago – but I hope this little discussion gets the rest of you thinking. You know what to do!

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?

Librarians as writers

It is (almost) a truism that librarians harbour a secret (or not so secret, as the case may be) desire to be writers. It is, similarly, (almost) a truism that keen readers desire to be writers. Now, I am a librarian (retired) and a keen reader but I have never really had a desire to be a writer – well, let me clarify that, I have never really had a desire to write a novel, so those of you who want to write the Great (insert your nationality) Novel need fear no competition from me. But, am I letting the side down?

Stereotypical Librarian

Typical Librarian? Not! (Courtesy: Hope this is part of her CC-SA content)

That said, as truisms go, many librarians have been (and still are) published authors and so I was interested when, in my inbox today, lobbed an email from Abe Books with a list of books by librarian authors. The authors are:

Admittedly, I haven’t read all of these authors, but they do make a pretty respectable bunch don’t they? Being surrounded by books clearly did them no harm. And, if Wikipedia is right, Marcel Proust, Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman were also librarians at one stage in their careers.

Looking at this rather impressive line-up, I think it is just as well I decided to be a librarian and reader (not to mention blogger), and not an author! But don’t let me turn the rest of you off … someone has to do it.