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.