Later this month, I’m appearing on two panels at the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival, which runs from 21-23 October in Perth. Sue at Whispering Gums wrote about the festival last month. I’m appearing on “Voices from the West” at 11am on 22 October, with Bindy Pritchard and Donna Mazza, chaired by Charlotte Guest. Then at 3:30pm I’m on “The Importance of Structure” with Michelle Cahill and Vahri McKenzie, chaired by Susan Midalia. To celebrate the festival, and prepare for the panels, I’ll be blogging about short stories for the next three weeks – both here as I reflect on stories I have read and written and on my biography blog to contemplate the stories of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
My unpublished second novel was commended in the SPCKA Young Christian Writer’s Awards last week. It’s an award for fiction or nonfiction with Christian themes by an Australian under 30. A wrap up of the shortlists and winners of SPCKA awards this year can be found here – http://spcka.org.au/2009ACBOYSouvenirRGB.pdf .
Sorry, this is just a maintenance announcement (and one duplicated from my other blog at that). But a potentially helpful one!
I’ve just added two subscription buttons that if you’re observant you might have already noticed in the right hand column. You can now get new posts sent to your email inbox or to your RSS feed aggregator. (If you don’t know what the latter is, you should probably go for the former.)
PS: the new post is coming at 3pm. This isn’t it. It’s a much longer, more interesting one.
Saturday is the annual booksale for the seminary where I work. So this post starts out as an ad to try to get you along, but will turn into a reflection on books.
First the ad: 20 000 books on every subject, from 9am to 2pm at Vose Seminary, 20 Hayman Rd, Bentley, Western Australia. If you miss out on the big day, come along during business hours Monday to Friday until the 24 April and we’ll be selling the left overs.
Now the reflection. Working as a librarian and helping on the booksale, books, paradoxically, begin to lose their value. When boxes and boxes of books are donated every week, their physicality begins to get overwhelming. They become bulky, heavy objects, rather than the miracles of thought and language which they truly are. The physical problem of storing and handling thousands of books risks making me forget the respect I feel for each (or at least many) of those books.
Books were appreciated fully when they were hand copied scrolls, each copy representing hundreds of hours of labour – the production of the book echoed the writing of it. But mass production, the volume of books in the world today, the cheap paperbacks, they make books too common, too easy.
(I don’t actually want to roll back the clock to medieval times. It’s great that people no longer have to be rich to afford books. But this advance does come at a cost. And I am provoking myself and my readers to re-value books, to not let the miracle of books be diluted by their proliferation.)
The other problem is the tide of unworthy books which flood secondhand sales. Most bestsellers are fads, and fads fade, washing up on the shore thousands of copies of books which, now that the hysteria has passed, are recognised to be insubstantial . Alas, no books seem more unworthy than discarded popular Christian fads – anyone for a hundred copies of Left Behind or the Prayer of Jabez? (Secular books aren’t so far behind; imagine how many copies of The Da Vinci Code are already choking op shops around the world.)
I always find myself frustrated at people’s book buying habits: I want to ask people, ‘Why did you jump on that bandwagon? Couldn’t you see how crap that was without buying it? Thousands of years of books and you have to just go for the very latest thing, as if books were newspapers?’
But if people didn’t do this, if people showed what I regard as good taste, I wouldn’t have any reason to fool myself into feeling culturally superior.
I realise I haven’t expressed any of the joy I feel about being surrounded by so many books in my job. I love the quaintness of secondhand books, the moments in time captured just in the covers of even many of the worst books. I was looking at a delightfully camp book called ‘The Adventure of Stamps’ from the 1950s yesterday, with an Enid Blyton style drawing on the cover of three private effeminate school boys engrossed in a stamp album. I love the way old books make me feel like a time traveller, because someone in 1973 or 1904 was handling this precise book, with the same words and, besides some physical deterioration, the same appearance. It’s as if everything in between might not have happened.
Deadlines are good things. And so is being regular.
So from now on, this blog will be updated every Thursday at 3pm WST (+8 GMT). (There may be additional posts through the week, but there will be at the minimum a post at this time.)
Some of these posts, I can just imagine now, will be short. But it is my aim to never waste your time, dear reader.
While I’m waiting to hear about my second novel, House of Zealots, I’m working hard on number three – The Library of Babel. I’m doing it as part of an MA at UWA, under the supervision of Dr Van Ikin.
Here’s how I describe the novel in my initial proposal:
The creative work I am proposing for my MA is a novel called “The Library of Babel”, its title borrowed from the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, with reference back to the biblical story of human striving and hubris. It is a magic realist work influenced by Geoff Nicholson and Paul Auster, intertwining the themes of mortality, success and the idea of the library.
The novel is set in a Perth with an alternate history. Early in the twentieth century, a wealthy industrialist named Benjamin Abel builds the world’s largest library in Perth. As part of Abel’s quest for immortality, it sets out to collect everything ever published and preserve everything it can, especially things to do with Abel’s life. By the present day, it dominates Perth, controlling media and publishing, but is mired in decay and inefficiency. It is the Kafkaesque bureaucracy glimpsed in The Castle, only fleshed out.
The protagonist, Henry, enters the library as a cadet. His secret mission is to write a biography of Abel exposing the truth about the man – now a super-centenarian – and his control of the state, his obsession with immortality and his suppression of dissent. For Henry, it is an opportunity to achieve the success which eluded him in the poor reception of his first novel. Yet surrounded by millions of books by forgotten authors, his whole quest is relativised. His predicament is worsened as he realises chasing success threatens both his marriage (as books become more important than his wife) and his integrity (as Abel befriends and tempts him).
The novel is also about the beauty and wonders of this strange library and its treasures, including lost manuscripts of sequels to books like The Catcher in the Rye and heads of celebrities kept in preserving jars hidden in the storerooms of the library.
I had a short story from it published in Studio: a journal of christians writing recently; it’s called “A Week in the Library of Babel” and you can download it either below or on my ‘stories’ page: