In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)

2017 Reading

Historical fiction and crime fiction, books marketed for children’s and young adult audiences, novels set in holiday destinations, even a sliver of non-fiction – here is an overview of my reading for 2017.

Books for Travel

Mid-year, I travelled in the UK, and I wanted to read, in situ, books that would lodge me in that landscape. One of the novels I chose for my Northumberland sojourn was Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water. There’s a shiver of recognition when I find myself in a place I’m reading about. When Into the Water’s Lauren wants to take her son for an outing on her 32nd birthday, she chooses Craster as her destination:

It’s my favourite place in all the world … after we’ve been to the beach and the castle, we’ll go to the smokehouse and eat kippers on brown bread. Heaven.

Lauren’s right, the ‘kippers on brown bread’ are heavenly.

Smokehouse, Craster, Northumberland. 2017.

My travels also took me to Devon’s Jurassic Coast. On my day trip to Lyme Regis, I imagined Mary Anning trudging across the sand, her keen eyes searching out traces of life from eons past – traces that would up-end 19th-century scientific theories and theological frameworks. Tracy Chevalier brings Anning’s undervalued contribution to palaeontology magnificently to life in Remarkable Creatures.

Children’s and Young Adult Books

2017 marked an end to my focused engagement with children’s and young adult (YA) literature. I wrote my last reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Reading Time journal in April. I was delighted that my final review bundle included Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle – a beguiling fusion of word and image.

Relinquishing my connection with Reading Time and with my @OzKidsYALit Twitter account doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books published for the children’s and YA market. A chance encounter with the name ‘G. A. Henty’ (a 19th-century English author) sent me trawling through the National Library of Australia’s excellent collection of Henty’s ‘boys’ own adventure’ stories. I was particularly interested in his 1887 novel (one of nearly 100 books from Henty’s pen) titled A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. Henty never visited Australia so how did he garner his information about life in the colonies? I went some way towards answering that question in the final instalment of my three-part blog post on Henty, ‘G. A. Henty and Australia: A Final Reckoning‘.

Later in 2017, I read Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. It’s the first book in a series about 11-year-old Morrigan Crow who, facing imminent death due to an unlucky birth date, is granted a reprieve provided she accepts an uncertain future with a previously unknown patron. My reading of Nevermoor set me thinking about the moral universes created by authors of fantasy fiction. Once again, my reading spawned a blog post, ‘Nevermoor: Morality and Values in an Imagined World‘.

I ended my children’s/YA adventures for the year by joining a Twitter book discussion hosted by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. These two Brits proposed a reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. (You can follow the discussion thread here.) For those in the northern hemisphere, the discussion coincided with the winter solstice, icy winds and flurries of snow – all mirroring the seasonal setting of the book. My reading took place during a pre-Christmas heatwave in south-eastern Australia. As I read Cooper’s novel, I took notes, and jotted down comparisons with other fantasy worlds (particularly J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series). One sentence, duly copied into my notebook, remains with me still. It concerns unintended consequences when rulers quarantine the land for their own private use:

But forests are not biddable places.

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is my unabashed escapist reading. I love assembling puzzle pieces, detecting motives, spotting subtle revelations. This year, I started Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series – two down, four to go! And Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (her second book featuring Australian Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk) took me, willingly, into the dark forests of Gippsland and the even darker jungles of corporate Melbourne.

Crime novels are often ‘easy reads’. I skate through them, carried by the pace of the narrative. But Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident did not let me off easily. The intensity (for me) in Maguire’s novel is not about solving the crime, it’s about the bedrock of culture and sex and relationships in 21st-century Australia. This book wouldn’t let me go, even though I wasn’t ‘enjoying’ it. Finally, I reached the climax; a single, convulsing stream of words. Words about men. About men who butcher girls, and men who don’t cause quite so much damage, and men to whom women go for protection, and about men who are pure and good.

But we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps, is the most unbearable thing of all.

Historical Fiction

When I’m not reading crime fiction, I’m often buried in a historical novel. The ‘Collections’ on my six-year-old Kindle reveal 30 titles listed under ‘Crime Fiction’ and 54 under ‘Historical Fiction’. (There are also two books in the ‘Too Awful to Continue Reading’ collection, but they shall remain secret.)

I’ve already mentioned Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, set in 19th-century England. Another book with an English setting is Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns, a richly evoked novel of the Pre-Raphaelite era. I was captured by the contrasting lives of the male painters and the women who succoured them. I went in search of Georgie Macdonald and Lizzie Siddal and Jane Burden. I wondered whether their painterly princes simply wanted to possess their beauty and fix it onto canvas, while the women themselves wanted to cease being objects in a man’s life and become the subjects of their own. Again, my reflections gave rise to a blog post, ‘Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns’.

Non-Fiction

A glance at my ‘2017 Books’ Pinterest board exposes a reading diet comprising mostly fiction. But the odd work of non-fiction sneaks in. I’m going to cheat a bit here because I’m including a journal among my ‘books read’.

2017 marks the end of publication, after five years and 17 issues, for EarthLines magazine. The journal, edited by Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, sprang from ‘a way of life … rooted in the natural world and in the wild’. I was fortunate to have an essay included in the first issue of EarthLines and I subscribed to the magazine throughout its life. It provided many hours of reading and pondering, and it included fine photography and original artwork. Thank you, Sharon and David, for your care, commitment and curation.

Lastly, an essay. Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading is published in a small, A6-sized booklet running to just 36 pages. It speaks of friendship and community and gifts and sharing. Macfarlane reflects, in part, on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, particularly Hyde’s proposition (in Macfarlane’s words) that ‘in the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving … Although the outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving … the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good.’

And so, my thanks to all the authors who have gifted me with their books this year. You have acted upon me ‘for the good’. Keep writing; I’ll keep reading.