Bob Carr, former premier of New South Wales, likes to quote Abraham Lincoln a lot. He did it when interviewed at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May this year. He was quoted in various print media doing it too. You get the impression he likes Lincoln. This is not surprising given Carr’s longstanding obsession with American political history. Lincoln’s line he likes to cite – “you may be right” – is such a catchall phrase, you could almost tack it on to any sentence or response foreshadowing a possible change of mind.
Carr brought the Lincoln line up again at UTS last week in conversation with Dr Camilla Nelson. He was discussing his Adventures in the World of Books, the subtitle to My Reading Life. Flicking through the book you soon notice, as Carr confesses in his introduction, “too much biography, current affairs and ephemeral political economy”. He bemoans the absence in his youth and university days of a how-to-read manual on the canon, that is, “someone to guide me into the forbidding world of harder literature or the classics”.
What Carr set out to do was an attempt at the kind of book he wished he’d had; one that provided “a bit of guidance, a few clues … a handful of notions [for the reader] so they don’t think they are going to drown”. That may well have been his intent, but you might need a life jacket trying to wade through the sea of almost four hundred authors that Carr refers to.
Such a personal ‘list of favourites’ was always going to be vulnerable to criticism. Many commentators, including UTS’s Camilla Nelson, highlighted the minuscule number of female authors. To those who say he should have included such and such, Carr retorts with that standard Lincoln line: “You may be right.” But he does indeed concede that the gender balance needs urgent attention: “I’m starting with Elliot.” Ms Nelson suggests Virginia Woolf also be included.
Conspicuous by their absence are Australian fiction writers. Except for Patrick White and a handful of others, Carr appears to have gone overseas for his literary sustenance. Of White, who Carr rates a better writer than William Faulkner (big call), he was struck by our Noble laureate’s “exceptional capacity to create a sense of place”. Don’t be frightened off by his ‘impenetrable’ reputation, Carr advises: “Remember, White’s a writer of comedy, like Waugh or Powell”. Carr says to forget the profound stuff; “The Twyborn Affair, The Vivisector, the Eye of the Storm, you can love them for their corrosive social wit”.
To borrow from Dr Johnson: “Parts [of My Reading Life] are good and original, but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” Carr makes no pretence to scholarship, the length and number of book excerpts outdoes his commentary, he ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’ way too often and he’s a bit heavy-handed using italics for emphases. Carr is also a shameless name dropper (be regaled by dinners with Gore Vidal and a weekend spent with Norman Mailer).
Would you have an easier entry to the canon with a guide like Carr’s by your side? It certainly wouldn’t go astray. Even allowing for the author’s political and personal preferences, the sheer scope of My Reading Life provides more than enough grist to inspire and remind even the most well-read or jaded bibliophile. As Lincoln also said: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like”.
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