Off the Shelf: Interviews with our book donors
In 2017, Centre for Stories installed a beautiful reading room. We set out on a hunt for books and have been lucky enough to populate our library with donations.
Our donors have included staff, volunteers and friends, all with one very important thing in common: their love of books. We decided to sit down with three of our donors who have delivered us books by the box load on several occasions, with genres spanning anywhere from autobiographies, literary fiction, children's novels, sci-fi, poetry, Australian history and beyond. Their love of the written word is inspiring, thought-provoking, and will remind you how powerful books really are.
Thank you to Dennis Haskell, Susan Midalia and Peter Dowding for your donations, and thank you to everyone else who has donated even one book to our library.
Happy reading... 📖
Dennis Haskell is an Australian critic, poet and academic. His key areas of research are Australian Literature, Poetry from the Medieval period to the present, Creative Writing, South-east Asian Writing in English, Literary Modernism (1890-1939), Modernism and after, and Post-colonial.
Centre for Stories: Out of the books that you donated to us, which are your favourites?
Dennis Haskell: Some of the Asian books are my favourites. I’ve done a lot of work on Australian-Asian links and on Southeast Asian literature in English. Some of it’s quite hard to get a hold of. It’s stuff I’ve picked up when I had been in Asia. I went up to teach at the National University of Singapore in late 1987, so ‘87 into ’88 for a semester, and that alerted me to a lot of writing, especially Singaporean, but also Singapore-Malaysian writing.
CFS: What role have books played in your life?
DH: Books have played an enormous role in my life, I’d say. I grew up in a house without books. My father used to read Zane Grey and Peter Carter Brown, literally paperbacks. He used to swap them with my uncle, they were the only things in the house to read. When I think about it, my father was very knowledgeable in a way. We could never figure it out. He used to sit in front of the TV with the quiz shows and answer the questions. We could never figure out how he knew the answers. I guess he must have read. I still don’t know the answer to that. My mother, on the other hand, wasn’t a reader at all. She never read books until later in life, and even then, she read the Mills and Boon kind of romances. But she used to take us to the local library, regularly.
My parents never had any money, but I was able to choose, every fortnight, I could have either a Little Golden Book, or an issue of the Chuckler’s Weekly, which was this thing published out of the local paper. So I used to have that. But I was someone that was always a reader. I used to read, I still would read, anything. There was nothing I wouldn’t read. I’d read the backs of chip packets, signs on the streets…like compulsively.
So I’ve always read. I think I was just born that way. I desperately wanted a set of encyclopaedias. The people next door, who I think never read anything, had a set of children’s encyclopaedias and I used to go in there and just read them. I still remember it was one of the Christmas presents I got, it must have cost my parents quite a bit of money really. I must have been eleven or twelve, and I got up Christmas eve night to go to the loo and tripped over this box and I knew what it was. I didn’t look at it, but I knew was it was. I was so thrilled; I still remember it.
CFS: Are there any books that have been significantly influential?
DH: I’m sure there are certain books that have influenced me in ways I couldn't quite pick. Treasure Island would be one. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I remember reading them as a kid and being absolutely enthralled. I still love Robert Louis Stevenson’s work. I like literature that’s kind of plain-speaking, that doesn’t look down on an audience.
When I got interested in writing, I started writing short stories, which is probably what everyone did. Everyone probably does that. I was rather late to it, I was in my twenties, whereas most people that are writers start when they’re kids, I was at uni. Then I went on to writing scripts. I wasn’t any good at writing short stories. I was quite good at writing scripts, but it was hard to know what to do with them. So I came to poetry third and I never left it. I’ve never gone away from it. It was the first form of literature. You know, prose writers envy poets in a way. Of course the poets don’t sell anything… [laughs]. It’s kind of good in some ways, it keeps poetry pure.
Susan Midalia is a writer and freelance editor who conducts workshops on short story writing. She studied at the University of Western Australia and Cambridge University and holds a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction.
Centre for Stories: In the collection of books you gave us, do you have a favourite?
Susan Midalia: Oh, I can’t even remember half of the ones I have donated! Put it this way, do you have one that you were ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ about whether or not to give it away?
There’s a collection of stories by Henry James called The Figure in the Carpet. I’m a big short story fan and Henry James is one of my favourite writers. But the print—it’s a really old Penguin—the print is pretty tiny; single spaced and eight-sized font and I just can’t read it anymore. Yeah seeing as it’s a Penguin from about 20 years ago and I figured if I ever want to read them again, I’ll read them on a Kindle, or I’ve also got some of his other stories in other collections, but it’s just part of the problem. I’ve got a lot of old Penguins and they just have really tiny font. I can’t read them anymore! I look at the price on the back. You know, I bought it at the University of Western Australia bookshop in 1979 and it cost me $2.50. It’s crazy isn’t it.
CFS: Physical book or Kindle?
SM: I like the tactile experience of a book. I like the fact that I can see how long I have to go until the end of the chapter. I mean, you can do that on a Kindle, you can flip it over and see, but it’s not the same. And I love the covers of books, the smell of them, all that. All the senses.
CFS: How many books are in your collection?
SM: I have no idea. My husband and I moved house about a year and a half ago and I did a big cull of them. Mind you, I took them down to the Save The Children book fund. I came across a friend and we both went, “Oh, what have you got in there?” So I did a big cull then. How many have I got? In my study I’ve got floor to ceiling book cases, there is about six of them. I’ve got more books in the living room. I honestly couldn’t tell you. A couple of thousand maybe? Does sound right? I don’t know. Well like this (referring to our bookshelf), I’ve probably got more than that, yeah I’ve got more than that. I’m very methodical. My system is I have all my Australian fiction alphabetised and I have all of my short story collections alphabetised and then I have all of my non-Australian alphabetised, otherwise I would never find anything. Then I’ve got non-fiction in another section, I’ve got poetry, I’ve got memoir and auto-biography. But I know someone, Annabel Smith the writer, she organises her books through colour. Not as an aesthetic thing, not because it looks great, but she just knows where everything is. I say, how do you do that?
CFS: Have you always read a lot? When did you start reading?
SM: Oh yeah. There were two books I remember as a child that I loved, and I don’t come from a reading kind of family which is kind of odd, so no one in my family read, my parents, my brother. So what did I read? The two books that really stayed with me were Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne of Green Gables and I went back and read it a few years ago and I still think it is fabulous. The other book was a book called A Wrinkle in Time, which is about time travel. I just didn’t know you could write a book about that. It’s also about cult-thinking. And family. It’s a really interesting book, yeah. I was maybe 11 or 12 when I read it. They are the two that really stay with me. I know there’s been a lot of controversy about it and some critics have argued against it. So you absorb all of things as a child without knowing what they are really about. But in saying that, there is a level of sophistication which you don’t understand as a child but it opens something up for you, even if you don’t understand what it is. There’s something this sense of an imaginative world and a conceptual world that is bigger than your understanding.
I do re-read books, not often. But for me, it’s about being ready for certain books. When I first tried to read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, it had become a revered book, and I just could not get into it at all. I just thought it was boring, I couldn’t understand why so many people admired it.
And then two or three years later, for no particular reason, I picked it up again and this time things fell into place. So much of reading is contextual. I think it’s the mood you’re in, it’s the kind of psychological space you’re in and what’s been happening in your life. Certain books resonate at certain times. I often think that there are books in the past that I missed out on because I wasn’t ready for them or I wasn’t in the right space for them.
CFS: If you had to summarise the role of books in your life, what would you say?
SM: Well before I became a writer, reading for me was, well, primarily a pleasure and still is, obviously, it was partly escapism because in my early life my family moved around a lot so I found it quite difficult to make friends. We would leave and then I would make friends and then we would leave again. So books became a form of friendship, I suppose. I think just that sense I had even as a child, this kind of miracle of making marks on a page and creating a world. As I got older I think reading became a way of learning about people that are different from me. That’s my chief source of pleasure as a reader. One of my chief sources as a writer is psychological, I’m just fascinated by characters. I really take great pleasure in the craft and the skill in which books are written, the skill with which language can be used. It’s an aesthetic pleasure, it’s an intellectual pleasure and it’s a gift. When I read a book that I think is really good, I see it as a gift as something that the writer has given to you. You are grateful that the book is in the world. You always learn something from a good book, a different way of thinking about something. Even a single word—you think, “Oh, I don’t know that word,” as simple as that. And you learn tricks as a writer. You learn different strategies that writers can use.
Peter Dowding was the 24th Premier of Western Australia. He has worked for several law firms during his career, specialising as a barrister in the areas of family and native-title law. He was appointed as Senior Counsel in Western Australia in 2002.
Centre for Stories: What got you into reading when you were younger?
Peter Dowding: Everyone read. We didn’t have television and my father prohibited comics on the basis that they were somehow bad for you. I could never quite work out what the aetiology behind that was. Of course I rebelled and read them anyway. But books were always really exciting things. The books that I particularly loved and hit with a passion were the Swallows and Amazons sequence. I loved those books. They were really escapism. So yeah, I used to read avidly.
CFS: Is there a book in the collection that you gave us that is particularly special?
PD: I haven’t given away any of the ones that stand out as special to me! Obviously a lot of these books are historically very important, and they contain a huge wealth of Australia’s history. A massive wealth of Australia’s history. One would hope that people would read all of this stuff. I mean in a sense, you say “well I know it”, but I mean, you don’t know it. You know bits of it, and if you were doing a research project you’d want to dip into them. They’re terribly important bits of stories.
CFS: So the books that you’ve kept at home in your collection, why did they make the cut? Why are they the special ones?
PD: Why didn’t I give those away? Well there were four categories. The first was books that were too trivial to give away. Then there were the books which were hand-me-downs from my mother, who died when I was young, and were her prizes at school. I’ve kept those obviously. And then there were the books in my general collection which have a number of sub-categories. There’s the West-Australiana that I’m very, very interested in. Then there’s the sub-group of explorers’ yarns that I quite like. That is the discovery of places, which I’m interested in because it’s the way in which people observe things and the way in which they’re unaware of what they’re seeing and they interpret them in different ways, and I quite like that.
And then there are books about the second world war, and books that relate to the operation of the escape route organisations during the war. And then there’s my collection of John McCrae and novels that I go back to when I’m feeling gloomy and reread. I confess to now owning a Kindle, and buying a lot of stuff on kindle that I don’t particularly see the need to retain as a physical book. But if it’s a book that I want to be able to keep, or search rather than just read, I might buy it on Kindle as well as the physical copy.
CFS: What role have books played in your life?
PD: There is such a wealth of experience out there for anyone that reads. You wonder now what experience people are going to get when they’re limiting their knowledge and information to five lines in a limited form of communication. It’s such a different thing. I look at the kids that I work with in the law, I get a lot of young solicitors between the age of 25 and 40, and I don’t think any of them read. I don’t think any of them read books. And that’s crazy. That’s just a weird environment, and a closed environment. You’re not even getting a daily feed to take your mind away from stuff, you’re just limited to the space that you’ve living in. I think that’s very bad.
CFS: Why do you think that is? Why don’t you think they read?
PD: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if that’s a learned laziness, a learned thing. I mean, you’re not satisfied by just reading tweets, but Donald Trump seems to be. But there you are, I mean for the head of the second most powerful country to be primarily communicating by watching an appallingly known biased television resource, and then to be communicating with the world with something that allows 180 characters or something, it’s so bizarre. It’s so far away from anything we could imagine. So it doesn’t compute. So you ask why people don’t read, I have absolutely no idea. I think the other aspect of it is reading on a computer screen versus reading a book. I think that reading on a computer screen is pretty tiring, and you’re also conflating two activities.
You’re combining this technology that is light and fast and wonderful, and maybe I’ll check my emails while I’m about it, with an experience that goes inside a book. Kindle I think is very different to reading on a computer screen though. It’s quite similar to reading a paperback, there is a book experience reading on a Kindle. I don’t know how many books I have on my Kindle, I’ve got quite a lot, and I find it’s a great way to read.
CFS: Can you pick two or three books that have had a major influence on you?
PD: Well it depends which stage of this life you’re talking about! I think in the first instance it was books like Winnie the Pooh, Arthur Ransome and so on. In my teen years, I don’t really remember the standouts until I got to the genre of Catch 22, and that sort of thing. That would have been during the ages of 15-17, when we were sort of pretending intellectual resistors. And then, later on, Kerouac and those sorts of people were influential. Also, in my youth I read a lot of books around returned servicemen about the outrages during the wars. Philip Roth, of course, D.H. Lawrence and so forth, they were all pretty influential. And then I’ve always been influenced by people like Graham Greene and John McCrae who tell stories in a way that gives you a really good insight into the place you live.
CFS: In terms of your interest in Aboriginal history, what kind of books reflect what really happened, or are fairly true in terms of colonial history?
PD: Well that’s the funny thing about it, one of the rants that I had in the Upper House when I was elected was about the West Australian year book of 1982 or 1983 or something. One of the rants I had about it was that it described in detail the development of the gold fields, the cattle industry, the fishing industry, this that and the other, and then it had one line about Aboriginals, “oh they were a bloody nuisance and killed a lot of sheep in Pinjarra”. That was the limit of the analysis of it. So when people like Henry Reynolds and to a lesser extent, Tom Stannage, wrote about those things, they produced really electric outcomes. Often it was written about in a really university language, and it didn’t convey the outrage. There was an anthropologist called Rowley who wrote a series of books which, in retrospect are a bit limited in their world view, but really started to uncover and layout just the injustice that existed. I think there were three books that he wrote about indigenous affairs, and they were really fascinating. And they’re some of the books that I’ve collected from people who have come from overseas who were here just after the turn of the 19th Century. They were so much more perceptive than the English and Irish settlers, so much more. They were just horrified of the way people behaved and conducted themselves towards Aboriginal people.