Biography by the book
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