Hang on, hang on….they haven’t finished the last one yet….
Hang on, hang on….they haven’t finished the last one yet….
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:
One of the great things happening in New Zealand right now is the deepening of our history: new works which go beyond the ‘good guys/bad guys’ approach of a lot of earlier works. Life is more complex than that. http://mauistreet.blogspot.com/2015/08/book-review-man-of-secrets-private-life.html?spref=tw
There is an elephant in the room – this computer,
an evolutionary change happening in our lifetime,
reducing our customs to fossils and converting
our children to new formats. As the Digital Age
powers on, I look wistfully at my books,
pen and notepad, and see that language is mutating.
Now the Web is a field of seething energies,
ready to extend and pool consciousness, is this
the transformation of the world to a unified virtual mind
or merely another noisy playground and marketplace?…
That is Roger Horrocks on the effect of the digital world on books, writing, literature, culture – and, ultimately, identity. The full piece is here and it’s well worth a read.
He doesn’t come to any conclusions – sensibly, I think. We’re in the middle of a revolution right now – and for once the word ‘revolution’ is not hyperbole – and it isn’t at all clear what the outcome will be.
Horrocks isn’t sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Personally, I’m tentatively optimistic.
New Zealand has always had a very “thin” cultural scene – it is a function of our small size and distance from everywhere else. The internet has broken that down and will no doubt break it down further.
My optimism lies in Horrocks comments about the ‘field of seething energies, ready to extend and pool consciousness.’
It is in the process of wrenching our notoriously parochial cultural scene out of its small-town-ness: it is also breaking down hierarchies and – dare one say it? – the ivory towers of universities.
Technology is breaking down both distance and walls and this has only just begun, I believe. It makes our small size less telling, provides easy access to a more global perspective and ideas and, obviously, helps ideas get around.
History is also deepening. The passage of time itself is helping, of course. But there is, I’ve noticed, a real hunger to talk, argue and occasionally throw things about New Zealand’s history, amongst the generation coming through.
As for the choice Horrocks outlines in the last line quoted above: I don’t think its a choice. It’s both.
The trick is going to be making sure the extension and pooling of consciousness happens along with the noise.
It is also, I suppose, to help future readers and researchers: so much has changed since the short-back and-sides, mono-cultural world the era will need a lot of explaining to the next generation or two of New Zealanders. It is just at, at times, it seems a bit of overkill.
There is, wrote Harley ‘a sort of bulging of the surface of Gee’s tailored prose’. Sargeson has this but for different reasons – ‘a hidden sexual charge’ whereas Gee has an ‘obsessive interesting private place from which one can view, voyeuristically, the world’ as well as a ‘sense that he can reach something numinous and atavistic when he deals imaginatively with place’.
‘quiver and shimmer, reverberate a little…I like to think of myself as saying exactly what I mean, but having some ability to make it seem a little more.’