Andrew Bolt is a columnist with Melbourne's Herald Sun, Australia's biggest-selling daily, writing twice a week on politics, culture and society. He also writes for Brisbane's Sunday Mail, and is a regular commentator on Channel 9's Today show and ABC TV's Insiders. He appears weekly on radio stations 3AW in Melbourne, ABC Adelaide and 4BC Brisbane. Andrew has worked for the Australian Labor Party and the State Opera of South Australia. But most of his career has been spent as a journalist, including two years as Asia correspondent for the News Ltd group of Australian newspapers. He has also reported from Africa and Israel. He is married and has three children. Here Andrew offers his thoughts on 'favourite' books.
Andrew Bolt on the idea of a 'favourite' book
Norm asks me to write about a book I like or admire. It gets me thinking about favourite books, after being absorbed with writing about power and rank - who's up and who's downed. I see many writers in Norm's series have named intimidating titles, from Buddenbrooks to The Romance of American Communism. Romance? Strangely, none of their books are the ones people actually buy by the glad truckload. No, these are ones that tend to sell by the worthy dribs. Books to frown over. To wrestle under. To add to the virtuous reader's list of jobs well done. Hmm. What a difficult or dishonest word 'favourite' promptly turns out to be.
I won't pretend to any especial virtue, mind you. Having started so suspiciously, like some John Carey class-war revolutionary, prodding the gilded books of the Winter Palace library with his guttering torch, I'm now reluctant to admit that I read Boris Akunin's latest Fandorin mystery with more rapt pleasure than I did even Dickens's Bleak House. Or that I could page through The Honourable Schoolboy of Le Carre's saner pre-Pilgerish period until way past midnight, when the incomparably grander The Idiot of Dostoevsky had me feeling much improved but awfully sleepy by 9.30. And yet, of course, I've already forgotten the McGuffin in the Akunin book I read only two weeks ago, but so well remember the gleeful kicking Dickens gave the courts that I made presents of Bleak House to the lawyers who defended me in an endlessly nitpickery case of libel launched by a magistrate. It was the least I could do, and perhaps the most I could say, given that the jury's verdict in my favour was overturned by judges. But let me dip into it again, out of a purely literary interest in the merits of a memorably-turned phrase, you understand, to rejoin a London of deep fog and to find that 'at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery'.
On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be - as here they are - mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.And fools still say, in these days when Mrs Jellyby (now fashionably divorced, her children snorting coke) appears nightly on the TV news, representing Save the Planet, that Dickens wrote grotesquery - so untrue to life.
So what do we mean by this impossible 'favourite' book? First there's the most obvious and insoluble problem, that the most loved book I choose right now, in the bright morning of an up-up day, is probably not the one I'd pick after dragging myself home from a hot office shift of thunderous columnizing, realizing again as I drop the car keys on the sideboard how undersold is the virtue of shrugging shoulders.
And things change. The world, us, me. Last year, for instance, I loved Orhan Pamuk's The New Life, his elegy for the decline in Turkey of Sufi-style mysticism, with such joys as its list of inventions at a convention of traditionalist dealers:
(W)e saw the displays of a device that cloaks time, a magic device that transforms black-and-white into colour, the first Turkish-made gizmo that detects pork in any product, an unscented shaving lotion, scissors that automatically clip newspaper coupons, a heater that lights whenever the owner steps into the house, a windup clock that provides the answer to the problem of the call to prayer, that is, whether it should be broadcast by loudspeakers or a muezzin calling from the minaret by the power of his own lungs.What a clock that was, settling Turkey's Islamization versus Westernization question by replacing the traditional cuckoo with two figures:
... a tiny imam who appeared on the lower balcony at the proper time for prayers to announce three times that "God is Great!" and a minute toy gentleman wearing a tie but no moustache who showed up in the upper balcony on the hour, asserting that "Happiness is being a Turk, a Turk, a Turk".How Borges would have loved it. How Iran's mad president now needs the humour to love such a clock himself, having just cancelled daylight saving so as not to confuse the faithful over the proper time for their prayers.
But since I've read The New Life, there have been more bombs and then those murderous hate-fests against the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. I'm more alarmed now by paeans, however trimmed with buts, praising Islamic irrationality, just as I lost some of my youthful love for Mikhail Sholokov's And Quiet Flows the Don as I learned more about him, his Cossacks and the regime he served. And does anyone read any more the works of another Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun, now we know what a shameless Nazi apologist he became? Still, how reassuring now to read in Snow, Pamuk's latest novel, of old student Leftists pulling on Islamist coats like they were just new cuts from the same cloth. Restores faith, that does.
But still I'm floored by that 'favourite'. Does 'favourite mean the book I most loved to read at the instant of reading, like the ones described on the back covers as 'page turners', or 'unputdownable'? I'd be forced then to admit what no one else on Norm's site ever would - that, spare me, I read The Da Vinci Code in just two sittings, not even getting up to pour myself another glass. Or does it mean books that I sometimes had to trudge through, but which took me though doors I'd never suspected existed, to rooms I've since added to the house of my life? Books, that is, that have become part of me, and for which I remain grateful. I'd prefer that definition, of course, if only to avoid writing 'Dan Brown' or even 'Agatha Christie', 'P.D. James' or 'Ian Fleming' in my list of favourite writers of fiction.
Thus I smugly - perhaps misleadingly - name instead Jorge Luis Borges. And Conrad, Trollope, Dickens, Austen, Wodehouse, Wolfe, Orwell, Pamuk, Bennett and... and don't you panic at having left someone out? How futile and arbitrary is this naming of a favourite. Good God, nearly forgot Waugh.
You'll have noticed, of course, that I've named writers here rather than books, but isn't that how we tend to remember these reading pleasures? Besides, it is usually through their many works, and not their one, that great writers enlarge our vision. It's every book by Dickens (bar the unfinishable Old Curiosity Shop) that makes up his gift to me. The door to that room of mine is labelled Dickens, and not David Copperfield or Great Expectations.
Indeed, it is sometimes the company of the writer rather than their characters that gives the greatest thrill. I read one of my other great favourites, Trollope, to hear his sane voice, nod at his judgements, enjoy his goodwill. Dickens, on the other hand, you simply read for his characters, whether Micawber, Mrs Haversham, Pecksniff or Sairey Gamp. His plots were always just the strings on which to hang his puppets.
So with Trollope, you don't just laugh at the vanities under the clerical collar or bet your heart on Phineas Finn making Prime Minister. By the end of The Barchester Chronicles or the parliamentary series, you understand both clergy and politics a little better, and are reassured that a sound man shares your judgements of both. With Dickens you laugh harder and sigh longer, but understand little more of the working world. And who would trust Dickens's judgement for an instant on anything practical? To know that Trollope with good reason thought Dickens 'ignorant' and 'not a hero at all', not least for his abominable treatment of his wife, is to appreciate Trollope more as a writer but Dickens not a bit less. No wonder I love them both.
But how could I rank two such different writers, offering such different pleasures? Or, for that matter, any of others I've loved? Even more difficult, how can I compare a novel to a great work of non-fiction (a genre I've ignored here) such as Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Solzhentisyn's Gulag Archipelago, Montaigne's Essays or Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - works which taught me to judge an ideal by its effects, not its promises, and to see in scenes from centuries ago the faces of men and women much like my neighbours? In such works pleasure counts for far less than insight, so by what common measure can we calculate their worth?
A favourite book? No such thing to anyone who's read more than a few.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]