Stories that can save your life

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Teachers periodically express concern about the future of school libraries. Most attention is focused on underfunding and on the importance of libraries for the retrieval of information. Deeper questions about reading are often left undiscussed: Why should children be encouraged to read? What should they read? And how should they read?

Books That Saved my Life by Michael McGirrMichael McGirr meets these questions daily when teaching secondary school students. He indirectly answers them in his recent book, Books That Saved my Life.

McGirr is an entrancing teller of stories. Their details are often edged with absurdity and the punchlines reach unexpectedly the tender flesh between the hearer's conscience and funny bone. In this book he weaves stories together. Its title suggests a personal journey, referring to books that have not only given enjoyment but have saved his life. In the paths from being lost and found, abandoned and befriended, in dark tunnels and seeing a light, growing from a diminished to a fuller humanity, books have provided maps.

He also tells stories about the books, including the well-fingered productions of paper and print that find their way from the writer's table to a country jumble sale, the stories told in those books, the writers' own stories and stories of the world in which they lived. For one for whom the second hand book shops of country towns are as impossible to leave unvisited as their pubs are for others, the annotations and bookmarks, the printer's and binder's art, are as full of stories as the texts. In rural Queensland, for example, he finds a copy of Thea Astley's first novel that she had sent to a friend, and he returns it to her.

This anecdote allows him to tell the story of a young woman who grew up in country Queensland and became a disciplined writer with a rough, disorganised exterior. It concealed a private self whose depths are glimpsed in the themes and relationships in her novels. They are also glimpsed in the vulnerable life of her Jesuit brother, which McGirr describes with affection and compassion. In bringing together these and other stories, captured in a vivid detail or two, he shows how the book enriched and enlarged his own life.

Sometimes stories come together less like threads woven in a cloth than like lumps of enriched uranium, coruscating dangerously. In a chapter on Thomas Merton's writing, for example, he describes taking his students to a Cistercian Abbey where the Monks live in silence. He remarks, 'Young people find this commitment confronting. It is far more outrageous to them than any possible expression of sexuality. Coco Chanel grew up in a Cistercian monastery; Chanel No. 5 has always struck me as an ineffable combination of silence and sex.'

Some of the books he has chosen allow him to reflect on how they have enriched his understanding of the wider world. In his reflection on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness he tells stories of his own visit to Africa with school students and of the experience of Sudanese students studying at his school.

 

"This book is a masterclass on why schools should have libraries, what students of any age should be encouraged to read, and how they should approach their reading."

 

His reflection on the callowness of racist attitudes in Australia is deepened by Conrad's novel, which describes directly a white man's journey into the centre of black Africa to search for an acquaintance. But it also explores the river of exploitation that connects the Nile to the Thames, and situates the heart of darkness in Europe. This invites the readers to attend to the effects of the unquestioned pursuit of profit and status in their own society.

The subtitle of McGirr's book is Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure. To those rewards should be added Challenge or Conversion. He is far more than an entertainer. He is a moralist in the rich sense of the word. He tries to draw his readers beyond moralising, and to reflect on the depth of what it means to be human. Moralising involves standing on sure ground above the messiness of human life, relying on unquestioned prejudices to categorise the people and actions that we see, and to criticise or praise accordingly. It comes out of a closed and superficial view of the world that is blind to complexity and depth.

At its heart moralising is incurious and so superficial. McGirr commends and exemplifies curiosity that always looks deeper into things. Like all good moralists he enjoys nailing self-satisfied superficiality, whether found in students who trim their reading to what might pass an examination or in adults who can see no value in a poorly remunerated or unconventional life.

In Books That Saved my Life, McGirr commends reading that uncovers the depth in apparently narrow or shallow human experience, the fierce thirst for life harboured by apparently defeated people, the ways in which equable lives can instantly be torn apart by death, depression or war, and the divine spark that can enliven the most unprepossessing clay. His reading evokes respect and compassion for all people in their humanity, and corresponding outrage at the way in which they are treated as things to be exploited. He encourages boys to become men.

Moralists are uncomfortable to read at times, and my enjoyment of this book was edged with discomfort. McGirr constantly found in writers and acquaintances depth that I had not seen, heroism where I had seen only defeat or eccentricity, and interest where I had turned away in boredom. This book is a masterclass on why schools should have libraries, what students of any age should be encouraged to read, and how they should approach their reading.

 

 

'Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs': Read an extract from Michael McGirr's Books That Saved my Life here.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Books That Saved my Life, Michael McGirr

 

 

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Wonderful, thank you to Michael McGirr and Andy. Recently, a friend asked me to join her in her book club and I said, rather ungraciously, that I like to choose my own books to read and I never lend precious books to anyone. When I read David Malouf's exploration of why he loved the novel 'Jane Eyre' it resonated so much with me that I felt David and I were friends! When I read Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' I fell in love with the superb use of language employed in that novel. So, this is why libraries and second hand bookshops are beyond essential.
Pam | 31 October 2018


Of the 40 books/chapters/poems that Michael McGirr writes about I have read only 13. One I read in an English translation, Homer's Iliad. but I was fortunate enough to hear it read in the original Greek by a self-effacing Jesuit Greek scholar Fr Austin Ryan, RIP. Before that reading Homer was a bore. As a callow youth I would have sided with G B Shaw when he wrote: "With the single exception of Homer there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his." Remember I was callow. I don't know what Shaw's excuse was for his bombastic iconoclasm. Father Ryan's sonorous reading made me hear the great epic as the equivalent of a 1950s technicolour film in wrap around audio. Homer's brilliant use of the Greek language to paint pictures, to give sound to the ferocity of battles, to elicit tears of sorrow for the devastating waste of heroic lives and loves. May I by way of contrast recommend to all Eureka Street readers another book that saved my mind - "Why I Write" by George Orwell (1903 - 1950).
Uncle Pat | 01 November 2018


Is there any way to get a copy of Books That Saved My Life to the United States? For some reason, the book is not available via Amazon or any other seller in the USA. I’d love to get a copy!!
Thomas Nolan | 02 November 2018


Thomas Nolan, I suggest you do a search for McGirr's "Books that saved my life' in www.booko.com.au The site will give you a list of book sellers world wide with their prices and very helpfully, their P&H fees if any.
David TIMBS | 02 November 2018


Sounds like a great book. I must get it and read it. However Andrew's mention of morality makes me wonder. Connotations of ethics, perfectionism and being good maybe connect with the 'uncomfortable to read' experience Andy mentions. I wonder if being human,humanism is a more life giving concept. Stories mingle what it is to be human and moral. They often open up the matter by way of existential ethics. Most people try to do good things otherwise the world would function even less well than it limpingly does. Stories tell us of folks' ways of crafting events with the assistance of their principles. Maybe 'moral' for me has overtones of perfectionism which is not human and certainly uncomfortable.
Michael D. Breen | 05 November 2018


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