Good Reading : June 2008
up close Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov to Silence by Shusaku Endo, and touches on the victims of Marxism, Pol Pot, the genocide in Rwanda, and much more. From there, the reader meanders through time and place, through genre and character, type and voice.The next sections deal with the best of comic writing, with democracy and dictatorships, with American literature and the everyday books, which are the mainstay of the publishing industry, such as thrillers and killers and spies. Carr touches on China, on politics, on socialism, the French Revolution, ancient Rome, the foundations of Western thought, Shakespeare and so much more. ‘For many years, my own reading was lazy – too much biography, current affairs and ephemeral political economy.Why didn’t I tackle War and Peace? Or reread James Joyce, first explored at university? Why didn’t I start reading Dostoyevsky in my forties? The answer is I was scared of being bored.There were no ‘How to Read’ books, no books on the canon. I needed someone, in effect, to place a comforting arm on my shoulder and say, “Now Tolstoy[’s War and Peace ]isn’t that hard. Persist with the Russian names in the first fifty pages. Remember that there are two key characters, Andrei and Pierre.” A bit of guidance, a few clues. That would have been enough. A reader needs a handful of notions so that they don’t think they are going to drown, some idea of “Where is this writer taking me?” And that’s enough to start.’ Which is why Carr devoted so much of his time and effort since leaving the premiership to writing this book. More than a labour of love, this book is what he believes education is all about. ‘I guess I wrote it because the notion grew in me over time that as premier, there was something about the job that drove me to read something profound. It was such a relief to lose myself in my books. As a politician, you’re often in danger of stagnating, of not growing as a human being. I was worried about being trapped by documents, of being on a treadmill, and especially of the falsity of public occasions, where you’re treated as a tin-pot celebrity and your self-importance is reinforced. It’s all hot air, and it’s great books which ground you in the reality of life, that stop you being puffed up about yourself.’ My Reading Life has a surprising omission. Although a compendium of world-class literature, there are surprisingly few great Australian novelists between its covers. Only Patrick White and David Malouf make appearances, omitting such luminaries as Peter Carey, Joseph Furfy, A D Hope, Judith Wright, and, of course, the inimitable Banjo Paterson and Miles Franklin. Why would a quintessential Australian politician omit his literary countrymen and women? ‘Simply because,’ he says wistfully, ‘I ran out of time and room. I’d need another complete volume to do justice to Australian literature. And that’s what I’ll probably do.’ Carr ends his book where he begins ... with Primo Levi, the great Jewish writer who committed suicide in 1987 after being brutalised by his experiences in Auschwitz. ‘One motif that kept asserting itself as I wrote these pages was the quest for decency … only two categories of human: the decent and the indecent … Read Levi’s story. Live his life. And all these others.’ Bob Carr’s My Reading Life is published by Viking, rrp $35.00.