Posts Tagged ‘essays’

I was having a chat with some nice people the other day, and one of them said, ‘There is nothing so sad as a moribund blog’. I’m not quoting exactly, but that’s basically the gist of it. As he said this, my heart swelled beyond typical size and I thought bleakly of my poor little blog sitting here, all alone, by itself.

But I have been doing other things, if not blogging, and two of them can be read by you, if you so choose. I interviewed Sydney fashion label Song for the Mute for new fashion magazine Collection. Song for the Mute have just won the 2011 L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award, against some stiff competition. Collection is pretty gorgeous – it’s a hardcover magazine printed on lovely stock, and every page is perforated at the spine, so you can tear out any page with impunity.

The other thing keeping me busy of late has, of course, been Kill Your Darlings. For the new issue, available for pre-order this week, I interviewed Geoff Dyer, famed writer of many stripes. Dyer is a wonderfully interesting writer and also a charming raconteur. If you’ve read any of his twelve books (the subjects range from photography to jazz to military history, and he’s also an acclaimed essayist and fiction writer), you’ll know what I mean.

Usually, I equate George Orwell’s name with visionary, serious political fiction. But Books and Cigarettes allowed me to add good humour and frank self-examination to the list of things I like about his writing. This itty-bitty (126 pages) book is one of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. It’s a collection of essays, all of which were originally articles published towards the end of Orwell’s life.

As to the short and sweet titular essay, the text of which you can read in full here; finally — the quintessential question resolved! For the record, I have been in the ‘books’ corner from the cradle (and, I suspect, will be until the grave), though I’m perhaps not a good judge, never having been tempted even once by those lethal little sticks George Orwell proposes as their adversary. Don’t expect a treatise on the virtues of both. This essay leans more towards economic analysis, with Orwell challenging the old excuse that books are too expensive to enjoy regularly.

Other essays in the collection deal with the experiences of lumpen schoolboys at British preparatory schools (ghastly and hilarious), public hospitals in France (just plain ghastly), and freedom of speech (people don’t seem to know what it is). In most of the articles, Orwell draws from his own experiences. My favourite of the compositions was, of course, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, an ostensibly hypothetical dissection of the horrors of that profession. It contains the following gem:


Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not
discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of
ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’,
while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book
does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were
paid to’.


(You can read some of Orwell’s reviews here.)

I, unlike most non-professional readers, rarely allow myself the pleasure of discontinuing an acquaintance with even a very bad book. First, savaging the end product of a highly objectionable writing/marketing/publishing process is sometimes worth the pain. Second, well, I paid my money. And third, I like to see things through until the end. But ‘Confessions’ and ‘Bookshop Memories’ (which details Orwell’s experiences working in a second-hand bookshop) show that Orwell regarded professional engagement with the publishing industry as a killer of passion for books.

Though I can sympathise with being tired of handling endless books and the people who love to love them more than you and other quirks of the industry, I disagree that such attitude-deterioration is inevitable. Obviously, considering that I review and edit written material even in my spare time. But I can definitely agree to reading Orwell’s non-fiction writing any day.


I’m almost embarrassed to write about this book because I finished it way back at the beginning of the year. So much for wanting to remember the things I read. I took it with me to the beach over summer — funny holiday reading perhaps, but it’s a satisfying, pithy and comprehensive book, a great example of Text Publishing’s quick-response, issue-based publishing (see also Henson Case, The).

There are seven chapters, each by a different author addressing a fraught facet of the war in Iraq. Gaita has arranged them in a simple, intuitive order, beginning with Robert Manne’s breakdown of relevant events, progressing through Hilary Charlesworth’s mindful assessment of the legality of the war, and ending rather chillingly with Mark McKenna’s chapter called ‘Howard’s Soldiers’. Though the viewpoints range in the angle taken, the overall tone rather leans towards emphatic, which is not surprising given the take-no-prisoners title.

Why the War was Wrong served an important purpose for me in that it brought together arguments on a state of current affairs in an accessible and coherent way. Much broader and deeper in coverage as a whole than newspapers and even the essays singly, it was a much-needed platform from which to ascertain the nature of my own unease about Iraq.

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now i have to read:

  • germs by richard wollheim – a passage of which is excerpted in john armstrong’s essay “the heart of desire” as an example of convincing writing about sexuality
  • martin heidegger’s being and time - portrayed as having no small influence on how God was historically perceived in guy rundle’s “it’s too easy to say ‘god is dead’”
  • anna funder’s stasiland – i was supposed to read it for a book club but i did not, and funder’s essay “the innocence manoeuvre” is an elegant, compassionate tackle of questions posed by the von donnersmarck film the lives of others
  • the untouchable by john banville – inga clendinnen suggests this is a successful attempt at reaching the ‘poetic truth’ behind a malevolent historical figure
  • the australia institute’s corporate paedophilia report
  • definitely something by raimond gaita
  • hazel rowley’s tete-a-tete: simone de beauvoir and jean-paul sartre, parts of whose information-gathering process are detailed in her essay
  • lavengro by george borrow – a favourite text of the cherished tweed-wearing, hut-building character described in anne sedgley’s “in fealty to a professor”
  • something by norman mailer though, because i still haven’t (see below)

but i do not want to read:

  • norman mailer’s the castle in the forest: j.m. coetzee puts a good showing in the ring, arguing that the novel keeps the ‘infernal–banal’ paradox in play and condemning the circumstances that allowed hitler’s young impressionable mind to pursue his own education ‘in a state of total freedom’; but inga clendinnen is entertainingly, frustratedly persuasive in showing that arendt’s concept of the banality of evil has been hard done by here, and that ‘the devil made him do it’ is woefully inadequate as ‘poetic truth’
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