Bi­og­ra­phy by the book

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon Caterson

EILEEN Chanin has taken on a daunt­ing chal­lenge for any bi­og­ra­pher: writ­ing the life of a per­son al­most en­tirely ab­sent from his­tory. The Mitchell Wing at the State Li­brary of NSW is not named af­ter the fa­mous ex­plorer Thomas Mitchell, as is of­ten sup­posed, but af­ter an­other Scot­tish-Aus­tralian, the early Aus­tralian book col­lec­tor David Scott Mitchell.

In con­trast to the ac­tion man Mitchell, the bib­lio­phile Mitchell did not have a river, town or even a cock­a­too named af­ter him but in­stead worked to en­sure that be­fore he died a build­ing would be erected in his name to house the in­com­pa­ra­ble col­lec­tion of Aus­tralian books and doc­u­ments he had amassed through a life­time.

While Thomas Mitchell was risk­ing his life to claim new lands for Euro­pean set­tle­ment, David Scott Mitchell qui­etly sought to pre­serve as much as pos­si­ble of the record of that set­tle­ment, even­tu­ally col­lect­ing more than 30,000 rare and ir­re­place­able vol­umes.

An ex­pe­ri­enced his­to­rian, Chanin has man­aged to write a near 500-page life of Mitchell de­spite the man him­self be­ing all but in­vis­i­ble. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough for a book about a bib­lio­phile, Book Life is a hand­somely bound vol­ume edi­tion of 500 copies.

Though Mitchell (1835-1907) be­longed to a wealthy, well-con­nected fam­ily, he had no pub­lic life to speak of and ap­par­ently not much in the way of a pri­vate life. He was a vo­ra­cious reader and had an ex­cel­lent mem­ory but seems never to have writ­ten any­thing sub­stan­tial, not even much in the way of cor­re­spon­dence.

In Book Life, we never quite hear Mitchell speak di­rectly to us. Per­haps the most elo­quent state­ment he made dur­ing his life­time was the blank exam pa­per he once handed in while he was an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, where he was one of the first stu­dents en­rolled.

Mitchell trained as a lawyer but never prac­tised law, pre­fer­ring a life of leisure. He




In­vis­i­ble man . . . David Scott Mitchell

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