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Stories that can save your life

  • 31 October 2018


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?

Michael 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