Tuesday, 11 December 2018

‘Books that saved my life : reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure’ by Michael McGirr.


This review first appeared in the December 2018 issue of The Melbourne Anglican. ‘Books that saved my life : reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure’ by Michael McGirr. Text Publishing, 2018. ISBN 9781925773149

At university, friends of mine circulated lists of books thought necessary for any fully-educated person to read. More recently we’ve seen the phenomenon of the one hundred books we have to read before we die, as though life is a race to get through someone else’s favourite reading. Michael McGirr’s book is not like that.

In forty chapters he talks about forty books, and more, that have positively influenced his understanding of himself and the world. Read a chapter a day, it is recommended as a Lenten book with a difference, especially as we find him saying: “Reading will feed your hungry mind and take your heart on a journey. It will help you on the path of one of life’s most elusive and hard-won freedoms, freedom from the ego.” He reads Thomas Merton to “understand the exciting journey from loneliness to solitude.” Every page delivers new insights using a trained conversational style. It is the ideal answer to how and why literature can save you a lot of time.

Regular readers of McGirr will not be surprised to learn that the main character of this book is the author himself. His eye for the comic or absurd, the meaningful or even tragic, combined with a talent for turning his experiences into story, make for pleasurable diversion. Books have their own life and language. McGirr uses his reading as a means into autobiography; books agitate his idiosyncratic ability to educate and entertain. “Reading is among the few communal activities that you do on your own” he writes, a paradox that in his case is very much about giving back what he has read to the community, not just keeping it to himself. He convinces us that good literature improves our own world while existing so marvellously inside its own contexts. After reading ‘The Pickwick Papers’ he confesses “I still haven’t fully found my way out of Dickens.”

Books are intimately connected with our personal lives. Thus, McGirr’s comic takedown of Mrs Beeton (“I confess that I think of a cookbook as something to read while you wait for the pizza to be delivered”) turns into a reflection on his mother’s eccentric kitchen habits. For him, the key moment in The Iliad is when Achilles offers Priam a souvlaki, noting “Homer makes no mention of garlic sauce.” Jane Austen is important for what she teaches us about sex, money, and religion, but is equally important because of the sharing of gnosis among Janeites, starting in McGirr’s case with his unforgettable English teacher, the very probable Mr Deegan.   

It reminds me of Simon Holt’s wonderful book on food and spirituality, ‘Eating Heaven’, which shares the same vital character: Melbourne. All Melburnians should read these two books because contemporary Melbourne, its people and mores, enliven every chapter, teaching us new things. Holt’s attention is on the different tables where we sit, talk, eat and share. McGirr’s attention is on the power of literature to challenge and transform. His book is full of cheeky schoolboys, shrewd social workers, and poetic Jesuits. He quotes Jacob Rosenberg to the effect that “Language is the physical manifestation of man’s spirituality”, only to prove it by his eager and earnest analysis of his reading, an analysis tempered and strengthened by its connection with the people around him.


Friday, 28 September 2018

Max Richards shares 10: Email retrieval on Auden and religion


Email from Max Richards, 5th April 2011:

This is the title of a short essay in Craig Raine, Haydn & the Valve Trumpet, Faber 1990. Read it, accept it, and call off your projected gathering on the topic!

On the other hand, read it, demolish it and then do your thing...

Just chanced on my copy of Raine in a box tother day, and only just now looked down the contents page.

How goes it, anyway?
To my surprise I spent time Sunday morning in the Castlemaine Anglican church, because my friend Lorender Freeman of Barkers Creek is a keen Anglican there, and an old longlost friend who now lives in C., was to be playing the cello with a small group for just that session. Bob Long, doctor and cellist. The session was for children first, and they sat on the floor up front and were engaged in conversation by the junior priest. The senior one is the great Rev Ken, whose surname will come to me in a moment. Ken has done much for J. S. Neilson in the past and introduces art and lit into church activities constantly.

The only person I chatted with however was Lorender, and now I remember your Eastern Hill project, I really must tell him what I can in case it engages him.

So Philip, take a moment and tell me if anything is to be added to what you told me before...

Best from Max

Email from Philip Harvey, 6th April 2011:

Dear Max,

Ken Parker is a good friend of ours and we have given talks at his weekends. Last time Carol [O'Connor] talked about Julian of Norwich and I talked about, I cannot remember, John Donne &c., I think. Oh yes, Ken is one of the wonders of humanity. Sometimes Ken is on the Advisory Committee of ISS, the forum that is having Auden tonight. Stories about Ken and his effect on Castlemaine are many.

I have never seen the Raine, but I know the book. Raine is married to Anne Pasternak Slater, the woman who edited George Herbert, so I suppose it could be worth seeing. I’d like to know the central thesis. There' really no end to what can be said about Auden, or his religion, there is nothing you can say that is definitive. You could spend the whole night just talking about Horae Canonicae.

Hope to see you tonight,

Philip

Return email from Max Richards, the same day:

Crikey, it's tonight! sorry, Marilyn and I are in Kavisha Mazzella's choir Wednesday evenings.

Raine is very negative about Auden who he thinks went off after he found certainty. But a good para or three on Kierkegaard's categories as Auden embraced them. Not that the great K. and I are intimate.

Did you find at unimelb arts faculty admin, Dr Michelle Borzi whose Auden PhD was done under yr Jesuit poet-scholar? Early morning and names escape me.

Ah yes Ken Parker. Someone should I dunno make a tv doc about him or maybe he will write his own book.

best to you both and also Bridie and the bunny whose name escapes me...for the moment.

Max

Reply the same day from Philip Harvey:

     > Raine is very negative about Auden who he thinks went off after he found certainty.

He took a leap of faith, which is not the same as finding certainty. It was the Nazis who had certainty and that's what Auden is so worried about. Auden is really a humanist, he is after the meaning of being human. In New York in 1939-41 he needs to know that there is something to counter fascism and much to his surprise discovers that it's Christianity

> But a good para or three on Kierkegaard's categories as Auden embraced them.

O yes, K. is very important. He also says that our relationship with God is necessarily personal and 'existential'. He also states that everyone has choice and our choices are decisive, both things of great importance to Auden.

> Not that the great K and I are intimate. Did you find at unimelb arts faculty admin, Dr Michelle Borzi whose Auden PhD was done under yr Jesuit poet-scholar? early morning and names escape me. 


Steele and Borzi, yes she is coming.

> Ah yes Ken Parker. Someone should I dunno make a tv doc about him or maybe he will write his own book.

It is doubtful if Ken would write a book, he's on about people first and himself somewhere near first as well. You should see inside the Vicarage, we stayed there once. The artwork and the libraries, incredible and completely him.

> best tyou both and also Bridie and the bunny whose name escapes me

Fluffy

More on Auden sometime.

Philip