I’ve been thinking a lot lately about revisiting books that were important to me in my youth. This is partly to see if the words still stand up, and for that reason there are a couple I’ve not yet dared put at risk, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. But more than that it’s for the nostalgic pleasure and an interest in comparing my past and present reading selves. I wrote recently about rereading Wilbur Smith after 40 years. The experience has put me in the mood to continue with this when I can.
One novel I have been meaning to reread for a while is Robert Drewe’s The Savage Crows, which came out in 1987. It is a fictional account of the extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines, told both as a historical narrative and by a contemporary narrator, Stephen Crisp, who is writing a thesis on the matter. It was the first book that made me think about our indigenous people. Some of its moments have never left my mind, such as an unhinged Crisp on a public phone, calling a bloke who owns the preserved head of an Aboriginal man. It led me to other books about colonial conflict, such as Bruce Elder’s Blood on the Wattle and Eric Willmot’s Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior.
All of this came to mind this week as I read our lead review, Stephen Fitzpatrick’s incisive take on three new books about indigenous Australia. I didn’t have time to read The Savage Crows, but I will soon. Drewe, by the way, has a new novel out soon, a modern comedy-drama called Whipbird, which publisher Penguin bills as “a classic Australian family saga as it has never been told before”. When I say I will read The Savage Crows soon, that depends a bit on whether I can find it in the chaos of my home library. I know I own it — I can clearly visualise the stark cover — but I couldn’t find it this week. It may mean another trip to the public library, something that has happened a bit lately and which takes me to an article in the latest issue of Overland magazine. Titled “On the Books I Kept”, it is by New Zealand-based Italian writer Giovanni Tiso. He starts by noting that books and reading “were tools of emancipation” for his parents. Books took his mother to university. His father had to leave school at 14 to earn money. But both became serious readers, especially when his mother’s eyesight faltered, meaning his father had to read academic textbooks to her.
“I grew up in a house full of books,” Tiso writes. “They weren’t just any books — are they ever? — but rather a specific collection that mapped the history of my parents’ intellectual development and their relationship.” As a boy he developed the habit of reading anything that came to hand. “For me, it was a perfectly natural thing to do, to read a Russian or French novel in translation simply because it was within reach, or had an attractive cover, even if it spoke of things I couldn’t really understand, or was full of names I couldn’t sound out.”
Tiso’s story takes a sad turn when his father dies and his mother has to move to an agedcare home back in her old village. There she has room for just 50 books. Tiso helps his mother choose which ones to take, climbing the ladders in his parents’ library, reading out the titles. “The first selection was heartbreaking. Mum could barely let go of one book in 10 out of the thousands she owned.” But after several difficult nights, they “settled on what needed to go in that almost fateful box”.
Time moves on and the books now belong to Tiso and his sister. “You shall know me by the books I kept,” he writes. “… we are in conversation with our books … they help to define who we are, like other aspects of our taste and our style. Or like the people we love.” Reading this beautiful essay made me call off something I had been thinking about: winnowing my own library. I’ve decided to keep all the books. Now I need to work out how to make more space for them.