If we were to go back in time some 30 odd years, and you were to go looking for me in the library of my primary school, the most likely spot you would have found me was either re-reading Asterix comics (which I wrote about here) or in the reference section going through the volumes of the World Book encyclopaedia.
I loved the World Book Encyclopaedia – loved that they had a double page of the the highest mountains in the world depicted as one mountain range. Loved that each US President got a huge write up. I didn’t care that they were obviously American biased. I probably should have been concerned that I could name all the US Presidents at about the age of 10 , but wouldn’t have been able to tell you who was Edmund Barton, but I figured that was the school’s fault not mine.
I loved to grab volumes and just dive in - did I learn anything? I must have, but if not at least I am now a pretty handy trivia night contestant.
As I grew older and left Primary School and the World Book behind (I never really got into the High School’s Encyclopaedia Britannica) what did stay with me was a love of non-fiction. I’d have to say I was a heavy non-fiction reader well before I discovered fiction – and definitely well before I came near some “literature”. It is a trait that probably explains why my first degree was in Economics and not English – though the literature magnet became too impossible to resist. And now, even with my bookshelves stuffed with fiction – far too many I must admit, and far too many still yet to be read – it is non-fiction that more often is the object of my gaze as I read in bed each night.
I find non-fiction is relaxing – I don’t need to invest in the characters; I don’t need to get in the rhythm of the prose; I don’t need to lose myself in the suspension of disbelief.
Mostly I read histories and biographies, but these are more like novels – works that need to be read front to back. At the moment I am reading Richard Rhodes’s excellent Dark Sun (not as good as The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but then few works are), and it has taken me a few sittings to get into the narrative – to connect with the scientists around the world in post WWII as they attempt to create the Hydrogen Bomb. But when I truly am tired, and want to just have some easy reading there are a few favourite, well dog-eared works of non-fiction that I have read and re-read, re-read and read. Books that like the World Book I can just dip in and start reading wherever the pages open. Books that I think I’ll just read a few pages, and before I know it the night is now very late and that early night I had promised myself is but a promise for the next night.
The Dictionary of World Biography, edited by Barry Jones
The dust jacket of this has long been lost/destroyed. The spine is barely left intact.
I have a couple Dictionary of Biographies, but this is my favourite. The tone is chatty, almost gossipy. It is the type of book I suppose I would read less of were I to have an ipad, and were able to sit in bed surfing through Wikipedia.
But I still believe I would read this. The Wik is all well and good, but to be honest, it isn’t all; that well written. You go to Wikipedia for the facts (to an extent!) not because the pages are themselves worth reading. Jones here has put in some of his own opinion amidst the facts, and it makes it all the more enjoyable to read. Also the Wik gives you too much information. These short bios – some little more than a paragraph give you what you need to know, and let you know if the person is someone you’ll want to know more about. Otherwise it’s on to the next page. Harking back to my Primary School days I sometimes will run through the Presidents, or the English monarchs.
Other times I’ll start with a random person and see how long I can keep going until I get to a person who does not link to anyone else. The book would be great in electronic form – because then I might not continually think of a person to look up and then while flicking the pages become distracted by someone else and then forget who I was looking for.
The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, edited by David Wallechinsky
While I might have been reading the World Book encyclopaedias in the library, the book I would have been most borrowing to read at home were earlier incarnations of this great, great work.
I love the Olympics – love them more than is probably healthy. Two things helped create that love (aside from the sports themselves) and that was Bud Greenspan’s brilliant documentary series, and Wallechinsky’s “complete books”.
The book has every result from every Olympic Games (as you can see I need to update mine – if only to get the drug cheat off the cover), but more than that Wallechinsky has the stories behind the events. A few reads of this and come the London Olympics you’ll be able to bore your loved one and friends with bits of information about who won the team Sabre title in 1936, and whether or not Chariots of Fire is truth or fiction based on about 2 bits of fact (the later unfortunately).
For the Sydney Olympics we had two night of athletics. In preparation I had printed out the top 30 all-time bests for each event that we were to see, plus the top 50 best times/distances for that year for each event. So when I say I am a bit of a athletics stats nerd, you can take it to the bank. It’s me and Bruce McAvaney head to head, and I’m taking him down.
It’s why when I first moved to Canberra and went to a work trivia night I was able without too much thought to write down the progression of the men’s 100m world record since 1958. It was a good night for me, especially because they also needed to know about Best Picture winners…
Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary
As you can see this book has gotten a lot of love. I bought it in 1994. It was the last copy left in the Dymocks’ store in Rundle Mall – literally the shop assistant had found one out the back (this was before Amazon, so such things mattered). It contains every Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor winner and nominee till 1991, and more to the point contains Peary’s own choices – eg Chinatown for Best Picture in 1974 instead of The Godfather II, or Cary Grant for Best Actor in 1937 for The Awful Truth instead of Spencer Tracey for Captain Courageous.
I agree with many of Peary’s choices – such as the above two, but also find he likes Chaplin just a bit too much, and Wesley Snipes for Best Actor in 1992 for New Jack City??
Peary’s essay that accompanies each choice are informative and interesting. The book introduced me to many films I had never heard of – such as The Awful Truth, and many of my favourite films I first read about in this book. I love the book and his concept so much I started doing it myself (and really must get back to it).
Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman
Another well-loved book. Peary’s book may contains the facts of winners of Oscars, but this book contains the truth about some of the films that won Oscars, and also the whole sordid world of working in the film industry.
Goldman, who wrote among others, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men and The Princess Bride, lets you know what happens when you find yourself writing a film script – first lesson don’t expect a hell of a lot of respect.
It is the book that contained the now universally regarded mission statement of Hollywood: “Nobody knows Anything”. It contains advice for producers working out their film budget: “Add one-third for the shit”, and how to explain why a film was a success when you have no damn idea why it was a success: “A non recurring phenomenon”.
The book is divided into chapters on the industry – “Stars”, Directors”; chapters on making a film: “Agents”, Endings”, “Subtext”, and then on the stories behind the films he has written (note, Carl Bernstein does not come across well). Structured as it is you can read any chapter independent of others, so it is a great one for dipping into.
If you love film, you no doubt already have this. If you don’t, get it.
Seven Centuries of Poetry in English, Third Edition, edited by John Leonard
This one is special for many reasons.
When I was first at university way back in the dark ages of 1990, I was the lone Economics student at my boarding college (it was a college mostly for those doing teaching degrees). One of my best friends was doing Arts at Adelaide Uni, and like many English students across the land, she had this copy of Leonard’s anthology of poetry. At the time I had an interest in literature that I didn’t quite understand – after all the only “literature” I had read was what I had done for Year 12 English. The only poets I really knew were thus Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe and Wilfred Owen.
And yet on those many, many nights that I would be in her room late at night drinking coffee and talking of cabbages and kings I would often grab this book and flick through almost in a confused manner. I knew of John Donne, knew he had written “For whom the bell tolls”, but had no idea he wrote other poems. Which one was Yeats and which one was Keats again? And you mean TS Eliot wrote things other than the poems that Cats was based on?
I was given this copy for Christmas in 1996, by which time I had seriously fallen hard for books. I was to go back and study English Lit in 1998, and that I got (and was in raptures at getting) an anthology of poetry for Christmas says a bit about how much I had fallen.
It is here I discovered “The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Here I found the poetry of Whitman mentioned in Dead Poets Society. Here I came across that wonderful amalgam of perfection and fragility that is Silvia Plath. When I read “Arrival of the Bee Box” I realised poetry ain’t all daffodils and sunshine. What writing, what pain, what imagery.
This book is also special because John Leonard taught at James Cook University- where I did my PhD, and so I feel a connection. I love that when I was a young Economics undergrad in Adelaide I felt an attraction to a book of poetry, in which the supervisor of the English Lit PhD I would do in Cairns was thanked.
I also got to meet Leonard when he was launching another edition of the book – the fifth I think – and so I was able to ask him about his selections – why none of Shakespeare's songs, why not Tennyson’s “Ulysses”?
It was a long way from the third floor of my uni boarding college wondering so this Wordsworth guy? Didn’t he write “Paul Revere’s Ride”?
And so these books stay by my bed – there for me to grab when I am too tired to read anything else, but which I want to read because without doing so I know I will not sleep. And as I look at the clock, and think about what I want to do before I go to sleep tonight, I know it’ll probably be another late one, and I know once more one of these five will capture my mind when the clock gets near midnight.
Have a great weekend.