Lists of things are all the rage. They help sell news…I was going to say newspapers, but hell, I mean clicks.
You know the kind of thing. “What’s hot, What’s not” or ”
Five Things You Absolutely Must Do Before Ennui Overtakes Your Entire Life and You Might Just As Well Lie Down On A Skillet And Wait for Them to Slide You into the Crematorium“.Well okay: none are quite as explicit as that. But it’s very much what they seem to be getting at.
And then there is the whole ” 100 Record Albums You Must Have in Your Collection if You Are to Be Taken Remotely Seriously” or “ 100 Books You Should Be Able to At Least Reel off the Conversational Equivalent of Coles Notes About”.
These sorts of lists are a bit more forgivable.
There is still, unfortunately, more than a whiff of ostentatious taste-setting for the plebs about them.
Which is one reason – but not the only reason – why I really like the Spin Off’s 100 great New Zealand non-fiction books list posted this week.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has been compiled by a group of people, with a joint byline of Group Think – itself a neat little dig at other lists like this.
And certainly some of the books listed show more than a small whiff of Braunias-esqe mischievousness.
Some are genuinely good.I got into a neat little online discussion on Twitter – which is possible to do, sometimes – over books which should be included and came up with a few which they missed.
This is the other aspect of such lists which can be a bit naff , so I’m venturing forth on this a bit carefully.
It’s the whole “I can’t believe you’ve missed out **** *********!!” thing.
Accusations of “glaring omissions” are common over lists like this. I’m not going to glare at any omissions, nor even eye-roll at them (although I did over some of the books included. The Passionless People? Really??)
But lists like this should not take on the form or tone of ex cathedra pronouncements from some cultural pontiffs. (yes, the authors of this list claim it is “definitive”, but it is clear from the context that they do so with tongues firmly in their cheeks).
The approach of the list makers, in this case anyway, seems to be very much in the area of “here are some books we have come up with – what do you think?”
This is a conversation starter, not a Final Word.
The compilers manage to do this with a combination of some very good books recommended, often some quite obscure ones, and often some not obscure ones which, to my own slight chagrin, I’ve not got around to reading.
That is the other, perhaps most useful, purpose of of lists like this: memory joggers.
There are at least two books on this list which I greeted with a “oh yeah, haven’t got round to that one yet”.
One final point: New Zealand seems to have reached a point in our history where non-fiction books are streaming onto our bookshelves (and, yes, onto our kindles and iPads as well) in a flood.
The New Zealand non-fiction section in Unity Books is spreading, and is stacked wide as well is high. There is a thirst for New Zealand history right now – history, and analysis of that history
If you want to skip the next bit and go on to my – quite short – list, feel free to do so. I’m about to go into Old Fart Mode.
When I was growing up, there were few books on New Zealand history – and in particular very few on New Zealand political history.
And about half the books on news on political history were written by John A Lee, or it least it seemed that way. There were no books on the history of non-Labour governments and almost none on non-Labour politicians.
There were a couple of pamphlet-sized booklets on political history – some particularly short but good ones on the interwar period – and there may have been a biography of Richard John Seddon.
That was kind of about it.
There were local histories, which tended to gloss over some of the more awkward, not to say bloody aspects of New Zealand’s history, in particular with reference to any events between roughly 1845 and 1872.
The flood of books about New Zealand history in recent years has, I believe, only begun to slake the thirst New Zealanders have for all this.
Aspects of national identity and knowledge of our history is becoming more important, more emotionally important, to New Zealanders in today’s world because today’s world is so globalised.
Living in this environment means an awareness of what makes us specifically us becomes more important. It is not about nationalism (or racism either come to that) although it can be warped into those poison-soaked channels by the unscrupulous and the stupid if care is not taken.
Here is my, small, number of additions to the Spinoff list:
- His Way by Barry Gustafson – I’ve written about this before, here, and won’t add much. It’s the best New Zealand political biography I’ve read and the companion volume, Gustafson’s biography of Keith Holyoake, is almost as good.
- 1981 by Geoff Chapple – A protester/journalist-eye view of the 1981 Springbok tour. Partial, highly partial – but then, given the fierce and bitter divisions of the Tour I don’t think anybody could write about it dispassionately. Not at the time certainly. Chapple glosses over – but does not totally ignore – the propensity for some more fanatical protesters to engage in vandalism and behaviour which could easily have seriously endangered other people. The self-righteousness of the time is caught, and so is the atmosphere of violence. It was a bitter, ugly period and this book manages to reflect that while also informing.
- The Unauthorised Version by Ian F Grant – Again, I’ve written about this in the past, here, so I won’t expand too much. Effectively it’s a history of New Zealand told through cartoons drawn during that history, and with some good explanatory chapters. I often give this to newcomers as a primer on New Zealand history up to the 1980s. And not jokingly either. It is a very good, entertaining summary.
- New Zealand the Way I Want It by Bob Jones – written as a response to the National Party 1975 election slogan: “New Zealand the way you want it” this is Bob Jones’ – now Sir Bob – best written work I think. Again, Old Fart Alert here – but in the 1970s everyone was so polite and Jones’ bluntness and exuberant, don’t give a damn commentaries on New Zealand public life had roughly the same impact as a gale force Wellington southerly would have on a stiflingly humid Auckland food hall.
- Food for Flatters by Michael Volkering – when I started flatting every flat had this, usually in the third drawer down the kitchen where the house accounts were kept. It started with teaching you how to boil an egg – and some of us didn’t move on from that page for some time – before moving on to more complicated things such as curried sausages.
- Economic Management By the New Zealand Treasury 1984 – This was written back in the day when briefings to the incoming government actually meant something. This was more meaningful than most. As a giveaway, the first hundred copies came with a set of brown trousers and bicycle clips.
- Mark of the Lion By Kenneth Sanford – the story of Charles Upham, who won the Victoria Cross twice (one of only three people to do so, and the only one who wasn’t a medical orderly). Utterly mind blowing, this book. At one point during one of the battles during the retreat to El Alamein, he was so peppered with small wounds and blood from shrapnel some of his own people did not recognise him. And some of the wounds were from his own hand grenades because he tended to get so close to the enemy before throwing them.