Of a retiring nature

It is now four years since I retired. I don’t remember the exact date of my last day at RMIT, but it was definitely around mid-August, 2015. All the events leading up to that — the appointments with superannuation consultants, haggling with the university over how much I would get in my payout, my farewell morning tea — all seem from another era.

I retired in a way that is probably the least recommended — going from 100% to 0%. I used to call it “jumping off the jetty”. My doing it this way was due to how my retirement came about. My former work group was being transferred to another campus, quite a distance from the city campus where they previously worked. Staff who would have been disadvantaged by that transfer were offered a separation payout; leaving the university was a condition of receiving the payout. At the time, I was happy to accept the conditions and avoid the extra travel. Stopping work overnight, however, did make it a more difficult transition than tapering down my hours gradually.

Of course, paid work involves a lot more than a salary. It is social interaction, the exercise of skills and talents, the feeling of being part of an enterprise. Paid work is a big part of how we define ourselves. When it stops it is easy to feel that you have become a bit peripheral, even useless. To put it another way, retirement can be a loss; dealing with it consequently involves a form of grieving. I did see a therapist with whom to talk the process over. For anyone who hasn’t received any counselling or advice from their employer, super fund, or elsewhere, I recommend it.

Like grief, I found retirement to come in stages. (After I wrote this, I stumbled across a ‘proper’ Six Stages of Retirement article on Investopedia.) Stage One was terrific at first: like being on holiday, but not having to go back to work. In Stage Two, the reality began to sink in that in most days there were a lot of hours to fill. This was quite a setback; I was not having nearly so good a time. In Stage Three, I gradually began to investigate options for taking up those hours. Many of these are not obvious at all — for example, volunteering at the Museum. The reality is that, unless you start a big project like enrolling in a course, restoring a vintage car, or sailing around the world, one new interest won’t be enough. You will need to find a number of things that fit what you have to offer: interests, income, energy levels, and location. It is not just having enough to do; you need enough of the right things to do.

It has taken me quite a while to find a way of being retired that suits me. It has been a matter of trial and error (which is really, as someone said, trial and learning). This has been complicated for me by ill health. As well as having to work out what to do with myself, I have also had to work out two medical diagnoses; first low iron, then prostate cancer. The investigations associated with the former, and the treatments with the latter, have been extensive and thus time-consuming. I have had as well to contend with the effects of chronic acute insomnia. This is something that continues to affect my memory, concentration and energy. (I feel these effects even when, as in recent months, my sleep has improved.) 

How I have dealt with these circumstances comes down to three strategies. (Yes, things do come in threes.) First, I have tried a range of things. Many of them I have liked, a few I haven’t. You never really know what learning a foreign language or volunteering at a community radio station — to name but two — will be like until you try them. Second, it is helpful to ask yourself occasionally how you would like your life to be different. Doing this revealed that I would like more interaction. Identifying this as a goal led me to do things like joining a book club. I also switched my exercise class to a day on which the participants get together for lunch afterwards. I enjoy both these things a lot. Third, I have been adding activities to my schedule gradually. After doing this for a little while, I feel I have enough to do, without being over-scheduled.

Most days involve one or more of the usual domestic suspects: washing, food shopping and cooking, writing and replying to emails, paying bills, and making appointments. Exercise is another priority, being one of the best things that I can do to maintain myself in a well state. Any holes are filled by listening to music, reading (I am having another go at In search of lost time, the Penguin edition), going for a walk, writing, gardening, digitising vinyl records, and handyman stuff. 

So what has my week looked like so far? 

  • Monday: neither of us can actually remember what we did, which is a bit of worry! I think this was a catch-up day after going to a concert on Sunday afternoon.
  • Tuesday: I walked around to the gym, then went into town to pick up my pass for the Museum, where I will soon begin volunteering. I did some food shopping on the way home.
  • Wednesday: had coffee with some former colleagues, then did some more shopping. Our niece was staying with us that night, so there was extra cooking to do.
  • Thursday: did some washing before my exercise class late in the morning, then had lunch with some of the guys.
  • Friday: more washing, then did a bit more food shopping in the morning. I had been volunteered to bake a cake for a family get-together over the weekend — this is baked and just needs frosting.

There was a good balance in all this of time at home and time out. Or as retired GP put it: you need something physical, something mental, and something social. I wish someone had told me this before I retired! Still, I can definitely say I never wanted to turn the clock back.

Small victories

I am now on my second laptop. They have both been Lenovos. I bought the first one while employed at RMIT. This meant I was able to salary sacrifice it, giving me a discount equivalent to my marginal tax rate, about 30%. This old one was much heavier than the present one, and was generally very reliable. (The technician who transferred the data from it to a USB stick said it was built like a tank.) Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, the fan decided to stop working. Because it was about 5 or 6 years old by then, it wasn’t possible to replace this part, and a new laptop was therefore indicated.

I got another Lenovo. Because I was, by then, a gentleman of leisure, this one was entirely on my own dime. All went well for a time, except that, a while ago, I noticed that the battery could only be charged to about 60% capacity. This didn’t matter so much because I kept it plugged in (more on this later). Then the new one stopped working altogether. While on the tram one day, I noticed a computer repair place just up the road. When I got home, I gave them a call.

They first informed me of their charges; $95, I think, for an initial diagnosis. This was rebatable if I got them to work on the machine. They had a look, and called me back. The hard drive was cactus. There were three options for replacing it, in ascending order of cost and desirability:

  1. the same kind of HDD, a mechanical one (the most old-fashioned type);
  2. a less expensive solid state drive; and
  3. a bigger and more expensive, Samsung SSD.

The last two options would have certain advantages, being much faster and more reliable. All options included installation of the drive and Windows 10, and recovery of whatever data was recoverable from the old HDD. (There wasn’t much to recover, as almost all files I create are stored in web-based applications.) I chose the middle option.

I am very happy with that choice. Now, at bootup, I don’t have to enter my password; I just have to click on the Sign in button. The machine starts a lot faster than before. Of course, I perform backups on a regular basis (yeah, right). Actually, I have OneDrive switched on, which allegedly uploads all modified files to a mysterious place in the cloud. (I accidentally wrote “in the clouds”. Is this place Valhalla? Nirvana? Atman? Is the cloud really just an expression of the collective unconscious? Time for another coffee.) 

The really good thing is that I have accidentally fixed the battery. All that was required was to use the laptop unplugged, to the point where the battery saver came on. Then plug it in until fully charged. Repeat the first measure. Now it is back to 100% capacity after charge. This is good because, in this model, a) the battery isn’t removable, so I can’t just buy another one, and b) I forgot to mention it to the technician when getting the HDD replaced.

I have the laptop now sitting on top of a wooden box about the size of a shoebox. I keep the mouse, USB light (for illuminating the keyboard), and memory stick in the box. The laptop sits on top regardless of whether it is being charged or not. The power board that it plugs into is just behind the box. I can reach everything from my chair in the study. These are small things, but it is surprisingly satisfying to have them sorted.

I also now have my power amplifier back from its second visit to the repair shop. This one was entirely my fault. I was baking some bread about a fortnight ago, and needed to raise the yeast mixture. This requires it being exposed to gentle heat for about 15 minutes. The amp gets pretty warm, so I put the bowl of yeast mix on top.  It was on a plate, and covered with glad wrap. However, I reckoned without the fact that, because that I was making two loaves at once, I was using double the quantity. It therefore expanded more, over the top of the bowl and the plate, forced its way through the glad wrap, and some dripped down onto the vacuum tubes. Some unscheduled noises alerted me that all was not right.

Several hundred dollars later, everything is fixed. It actually sounds better than before; I have also solved a minor but annoying issue with the stereo. It was making some intermittent kind of rustling, tinselly sounds through the left channel. I checked all the connections and tried unplugging various bits to see if they were causing interference. Among the bits I unplugged was the antenna — this has a little signal amplifier in it to improve the reception. None of these measures fixed the problem.

When I got the power amp back, I took the opportunity to re-site the transformer, and plug everything into a new power board. I plugged the antenna back in, and used it as intended to boost the signal from the tuner. Now the rustly-tinselly sounds have gone away. I’m not sure exactly what I did to solve the problem, but so far, so good.

Last weekend I went to the 3MBS book and record fair. Fortunately I had decided to leave the car up on Studley Park Road and walk the rest of the way to the Abbotsford Convent, where the station is located. This meant carrying a shoulder bag in which to bring back what I bought. By this means I both got my steps up, and inhibited my purchasing — knowing that whatever I bought, I would have to carry back up the hill.

I got

  • on vinyl:
    • a complete Hansel & Gretel, with Anna Moffo, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Auger, and Lucia Popp — what a cast!
    • Verdi Requiem
    • Bruckner 7 and Wagner Götterdämmerung suite;
  • on CD:
    • the complete Beethoven symphonies with Harnoncourt,
    • Songs of the Auvergne with Jill Gomez
    • Shostakovich 13 & 15 with Solti, and
    • the complete Debussy orchestral music with Boulez,

all for about $40! The vinyl is in much better condition than LPs from the op shop, some of which are very scratched. So I think I will be restricting my purchases of that format from the fair.

Rules are rules

When I wake up early, like before 5.00 am, and can’t get back to sleep, I think “Oh, OK, coffee with breakfast!”.  It is a small but genuine consolation for a night that was a bit light on. 

The coffee rule which I am invoking is: I have to have two teas before I have a coffee. When I need to get up early, I will make a tea then, and another one when I bring my beloved her coffee at 5.45 am. (This waking time is only on her work days — I wake her at a later time on her days off.) So on the days when I wake up earlyI have therefore had my two teas before I have breakfast, making a coffee with that meal permissible.

Why do I have this rule? It’s complicated. I really prefer coffee to tea. So if I had it all the time, I would have four or five cups of coffee a day, which seems undesirable. Limiting my coffee intake is a hangover from the days when my insomnia was really bad. Then, I used religiously to have only one coffee each day, at 10.30 am. I have since concluded that this doesn’t noticeably improve my sleep, and have thus relaxed the rule somewhat to have two or three coffees each day. Once I have had coffee, I don’t want to go back to having tea. 

This may not be very earth-shattering in itself, but it strikes me as a neat example of the little rules that we like to construct for ourselves. They go by several names: maxims, rules of thumb, heuristics. Many are relics from more leisurely ages: one for each person, and one for the pot. (Does anyone still make leaf tea any more?) Many old saws contain practical advice, like eating shellfish only in months containing the letter “R”, and planting your tomato seeds after Melbourne Cup Day. My beloved said her father put his in earlier, raising another rule: there are exceptions to every rule.

Then there are the proverbs that everyone knows: a stitch in time saves nine; look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. I remember a few bridge-related ones from Dad; always lead with the third highest of your longest and strongest suit: never trump your partner’s ace. And one, from a bygone era, that he loved to quote: there’s many a man walking the streets of London for not having played out his trumps.

There is a range of these sayings based on superstition: if you give someone a knife, they have to give you a coin, or else you’re symbolically cutting the friendship. Other sayings use rhyme as a mnemonic. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Thirty days hath September (etc. — I could never remember the bit about the leap year). Everyone will have their own examples — please add as a comment.

I find this plethora of little guideposts to daily life intriguing. How have they come to be so ubiquitous? As usual, I think there are several reasons. One is to do with efficiency. Practical rules do distill some useful experience. If you can’t remember when you changed the battery in your smoke detectors, you may as well do it every Easter. Shellfish apparently can taste different when they are spawning. In the Northern Hemisphere, the months-with-an-R-in-them rule is a handy mnemonic to avoid this season. (In Australia, according to Richard Cornish’s column, this doesn’t apply.) The same with planting your tomato seeds. Rules of this type give a handy mental hook on which to hang a fact that would otherwise swim away. (This, of course, was from a pre-Wikipedia era, when everyone was expected to have “general knowledge”, whatever that was.)

Food is something that is both rule-ridden, and reflective of social change. Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton — guilty as charged! Red wine goes with meat, white with chicken or fish. A meal isn’t complete without bread. Mealtimes now are vastly different to when most of us were growing up. There is obviously a much greater range of foods consumed in Australia and New Zealand, and much less of that food is made in-house. It is also consumed in a much more hedonistic way; food is now seen as something interesting and pleasurable. Back in the day, some households operated an immutable seven-day menu. Saturday was roast day. Sunday lunch was leftovers from the roast with salad; dinner was scrambled eggs. Monday was a casserole, and so on. 

These kinds of arrangements reflect the good and bad aspects of rules. Having a rule is reassuring in the same way that habits are. Rules can provide not only useful guidance, but also a sense of continuity in a world that can feel hostile and overwhelming. They can also be boring and constraining. In this way they are a bit like the Queen’s Christmas message. One might like the fact that HMQ is still pegging along and giving us her take on things, but her comments are often so anodyne as to be pretty dull. (Just the thing after a day’s epic consumption!)

Having just finished reading Willpower, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, I have a another explanation for rules. The main function of rules is to simplify the decision making process. Having to make a lot of decisions leads to a state known as decision fatigue(I think this is similar to cognitive overload.) Anyone renovating a house, or who has looked at a number of properties, will have experienced this state. Decision fatigue leads to impulsive decision-making: you just want to get it all over with. This in turn makes bad decisions more likely.

Back to my tea and coffee rule. The obvious question is: why don’t you just have what you feel like? That actually involves more work in that I have to make this decision several times a day. If I do that all day, I’ll spend all my decision-making energy on this little stuff. I’ll have nothing left in the tank when I get to the big decisions.

Sounds fanciful? Baumeister and Tierney’s main contentions are:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

A large number of experiments have confirmed these statements. One early piece of research is known as the radish experiment. Students, who had been fasting, were assigned to one of two groups. Each group was put into a lab with freshly-baked chocolate biscuits, chocolate, and raw radishes on the table. One group was told they could eat anything, the other group told only to eat the radishes. Both groups were then given a large number of difficult geometry problems to solve. The chocolate biscuit group persevered longer than the radish group. This confirmed the hypothesis that the willpower of the radish group would be eroded by refraining from eating the biscuits and chocolate.

Ever tried to compare phone plans or health insurance? The tasks are so difficult one soon hits decision fatigue. Given that this results in most people staying put, it’s not hard to see how this state of affairs is in the interest of the telco or health insurer. There have recently been reactions against all this complexity. Health insurers have been forced to offer bronze, silver and gold plans. Some telcos offer basic plans, as well as ones with the lot. And in fashion, there is talk of the capsule wardrobe; a collection of garments in a restricted colour palette, all of which go with each other.  One may not take Mark Zuckerberg’s advice in many facets of life, but he has a relevant sartorial rule. He only has T-shirts in one colour: grey marle. This way he gets to leave the house with his decision-making mojo intact. Your time starts now: tea or coffee?

The knock on the door

Dmitri Shostakovich did pretty well in the ABC Classic 100 competition recently, coming in at number 24. (He even beat Haydn — and Wagner! I think this would have appealed to his sense of irony.) Although he had never been a favourite composer of mine, I have been listening to his music a fair bit lately. There are several reasons for this, which came to light one after the other.

I had been hearing some of the Shostakovich symphonies, both on the radio and on vinyl. (The latter was via his son Maxim’s recording of the Fifth Symphony.) So I ordered a complete set of the symphonies several months ago through Readings, courtesy of the generous birthday voucher from my sister — thanks, Jane! The set is conducted by Mariss Jansons, and features several Russian and western orchestras. Jansons is Latvian; his father, Arpad, was also a conductor, and a contemporary of  Shostakovich’s. So Mariss Jansons literally grew up with this music.  He rates Shostakovich on a par with Mahler as a symphonic composer. 

Soon after this set arrived, I went to a lecture at the University of the Third Age in Hawthorn about Shostakovich. This was given by Zoe Knighton, cellist of the Flinders Quartet. (Incidentally, Zoe listed Julian Barnes’ novel about Shostakovich, The noise of time , on her reading list.) 

As one might expect, her talk concentrated on Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets. However, it also touched on several significant events in the composer’s life, notably a performance in 1936 of his third opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Stalin attended this performance, but evidently found it extremely offensive, and walked out. (Interestingly, he sat through three of its four acts before doing so.) Afterwards, Shostakovich was publicly criticised — along with other Soviet composers — for not writing “music for the masses”, or proletarian music. Such music was simple and direct, and positive in its emotions. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is an example of this approved style of Soviet music. 

After the denunciations, a newspaper article called “A Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism” was issued under Shostakovich’s name. The article was a mea culpa, acknowledging the charges that had been levelled against him. Shostakovich changed his style, withdrew his Fourth Symphony, and concentrated on writing film scores.  In spite of these actions, he was dismissed from his position at the Moscow Conservatory, his family’s privileges were withdrawn or curtailed, and he spent the rest of his life in fear of being arrested. It was from this time that he famously kept a bag packed by the side of his bed, in readiness for the knock on the door late at night or early in the morning from the secret police. 

Around this time I went to a performance in the Balwyn Cinema of the Shostakovich opera that Stalin found so offensive, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk(The opera is not based on the Shakespeare tragedy, but on a contemporary novel by Nikolai Leskov.) This was a recent performance from the Paris Opera — the review from Limelight gives the flavour of the production. It featured the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė in the title role, and several Russian singers in the supporting parts.

Shostakovich had intended Lady Macbeth to be the first of a trilogy about the position of Soviet women. (Not surprisingly, the remaining two operas were never written). He and the librettist obviously felt that this position was an unenviable one. As the Limelight review observes, it is “packed to the gills with sexual violence and murder”. The music would have been enough for Stalin to dislike it, being often dissonant, sarcastic, and uncompromisingly modernist. He would have also been irritated by the libretto, which takes potshots at various aspects of Soviet society. Lady Macbeth turned out to be Shostakovich’s last completed opera. I thought it was a magnificent and stunningly original work.

The knock on the door in the middle of the night that Shostakovich expected never came. Things eased for him, particularly after Stalin died. He was protected to some extent by his music being well known in the West. Nevertheless, the anticipation of his impending arrest cast a shadow over his life. (Apparently Shostakovich told a friend he had felt anxious for years.) This is reflected in his music, which can sound either emotionally numb, or as if it is struggling to contain a rising tide of hysteria.

Shostakovich’s music, however, is about more than his own anxiety. Jansons thinks the Second World War is essential for understanding the Seventh (“Leningrad”) and Eighth symphonies. The Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi Yar”) sets the biting satire of Yevtushenko’s verses, which critique the anti-Semitism, the fearfulness, and the timidity of Soviet society. “They’re forgotten,/ the ones who hurled curses, / but we remember/ the ones who were cursed.” In this work Shostakovich seems to express the anguish of his compatriots at the repression, the show trials, the denunciations, the exiles. Maybe this is one reason why his music was popular with Soviet audiences — even challenging scores like Lady Macbeth — despite the political risks involved with playing or listening to it. The denunciations missed the crucial fact: Shostakovich was writing “music for the masses” all along. (Is this the most piquant irony of them all?)

Shostakovich may not be a barrel of laughs, exactly, but he is not all doom and gloom. To Jansons, the extended C major chord at the end of the “Leningrad” symphony

… is not the end — not victory; the struggle will continue. This is the Shostakovich phenomenon; he shows optimistic elements, but at the same time something disturbs one.  [Interview with Mariss Jansons, in CD booklet, Dmitri Shostakovich — The Complete Symphonies. EMI 0946 3 65300204]

Would we be convinced by a rousing finale nowadays, though, like that of Beethoven Fifth Symphony? Ours is the age of anxiety. (W H Auden and Leonard Bernstein certainly thought so; both used the title for a long poem and a symphony respectively.) Shostakovich’s music is that of someone who has had many dark nights of the soul — but endures.

There is a literary allusion I cannot track down, in one of the George Johnston novels. As I recall, it is along the lines of “And then he went on as if nothing had happened”. Since the end of the chemotherapy, I have been trying to do just that, and have a normal life. I imagine Shostakovich trying to do the same. 

I have it much easier than Dmitri did. Once a dictator takes a dislike to you, there is not much you can do about it. I have a fabulous team devoted to keeping me in a well state. I am being supported with great love. Everything is going as I might hope. Nevertheless, I think of Shostakovich in his apartment (as depicted by Julian Barnes), listening intensely every time the lift doors opened on his floor.  

Palaces for the people

I read a really interesting interview in The Economist this morning with Eric Klineberg, author of a forthcoming book, Palaces for the people. (Before I go on, the link quoted sits behind a paywall. I have a free trial subscription to The Economist, which is how I came to read this article. I try not to link to articles which are not publicly available, but this one I thought exceptionally interesting. The article includes an excerpt from the book. There is also a Google preview of the book, available here .)

The author says about libraries

Libraries play an especially important role in promoting democratic culture—and challenging authoritarianism—because of the way they are staffed, managed and programmed. They are radically inclusive. They are governed by professionals who abide by powerful vocational norms: pursuing knowledge with the best tools at our disposal; being non-judgmental; respecting the dignity of all persons; maintaining privacy; treating everyone, regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, age, ability or citizenship status as equals. If, on one side of the battlefield, demagogues and tech titans are pushing us towards a post-truth era, on the other, librarians are pushing back. [ … ] But I fear that we are starving our libraries just when we most need them.

While libraries appear to be in the gun sights of local government and university administrators, they are popular with the punters, and not just oldies like me. The interview refers to some Pew research data that found about 50% of millennials in the United States have used a library in the previous 12 months. This makes them the group most likely to use libraries. (This research is available in full text thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, a shout-out to them.)

Of course, by “libraries”, the Pew report and Klineberg are mostly talking about public libraries. University libraries, actually, are more open than one might think, although this was not publicised. Anyone could walk in and read at RMIT library. A library card giving borrowing access to books was available for a fee. (This card did not include access to online databases or e-books.)

As a footnote, people did make use of the library in surprising ways. There were one or two who used to hide during the nightly clearing process, unroll a sleeping bag, and have a kip between a couple of rows of shelves. An attendant was once clearing the library following a fire alarm or bomb threat (I can’t remember which). He found a little girl sitting quietly at one of the desks. When he asked her whether she had a parent in the library, she explained that her mother had left her there and told her not to move. The attendant had no choice but to take the girl with him to the evacuation point. When she was reunited with her by now rather distraught mother, the latter explained that she had thought the library was a safe place to leave her daughter for a while while she went to an appointment nearby. (This was a bit like leaving a child unattended in Myer or David Jones.)

I’ve got a little list; I

While wrestling with this post before, my broadband decided to have a bad hair day.  (It has since been restored — ditto the laptop.) Anyway, if you got an earlier version of this post, it was because WordPress decided to publish it prematurely.  Apos for that, as the young folk say nowadays, or did once.

I have been thinking about lists recently. I haven’t just had bucket lists in mind, as per the previous post, but other kinds too, especially literary ones. I was struck by the 100 greatest novels sort of list. I started looking at 100-greatest lists, as I will refer to them, to see if I’d read what the compilers recommended. Then I started thinking about what was going on with these lists and why they existed. These thoughts have become somewhat protracted. So in trying to stop this feeling to much like a thesis, I have split it into two posts, the first of which follows below(I give some further examples at the end of the second post — yes, a list of lists). 

I did read a somewhat cynical explanation of why listicles, as they are known, have become popular. This is because journalists find them easier to write than articles. Writing an article forces a journalist to think about how to make the final sentence link up with the opening one. Much easier to make a list! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Three reasons in particular come to mind.

The first is a conviction that reading is intrinsically good for you. Of course, just because something is intrinsically good for us doesn’t make it fun. Reading — particularly from a printed page — is the broccoli of leisure activities. Nutritious, for sure, but not something one gets a craving for. No-one has to make a list with things on it like “Have a coffee and some chocolate”.

But it isn’t just reading that’s supposed to be good for you: it’s reading on a printed page. The book is competing for our attention with the convenience of the screen. Sitting on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, or in the spare half hour while a load of washing finishes its cycle, it is easier to find time for reading a few bits and pieces on the phone or tablet than it is to sit down with a novel. There is some uneasiness about what this extra screen time might be doing to us; there have been a few articles recently about how to read more hard copy books. Want to read more? Choose an extremely long book is an example.

The second reason is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness about what books people should be reading. People seem to feel that bestsellers and airport books are literary equivalents of junk food. They want to read the good stuff. But how do they know what this is? There are no Choice tests they can read to get onto the best books. People have a lot of demands on their free time; just futzing around on their own could waste what little they have. There seems a real craving for guidance, for someone to tell them what to read, and where to start.

The third reason behind 100-greatest lists is the hardest to pin down. What do people think they’ll get, or gain, from all this reading? There is a vague belief that working your way through a 100-greatest list will make you well read, a member of the cognoscenti. You may not have a degree to say so, but who needs one? You’ll be not only be a better person intrinsically, but a more evolved one as well, sort of like reaching the Scientology state of “Clear”.

The post continues below.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve got a little list; II

There is a creeping competitive, credentialist aspect to this 100-greatest list business as well. The big daddy of these lists, The Guardian 1000 novels everyone must read, leads with the minatory question “How many of these have you read?”. (This aspect, of the 100-greatest lists as a test of character, is possibly related to the reading-is-good-for-you reason I identified in the previous post.) After working one’s way through this terrifying list, one could surely lay claim to being A Reader. Reading would then be something that one has objectively and verifiably “done”, and could tick off one’s list, for good! (Ah yes, as the uncle in The Cherry Orchard is fond of proclaiming, I went in for that a good deal as a young man.)

There has been a backlash against the whole idea of 100-greatest lists. An example is an article (also from The Guardian),”We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old“. Criticism of Robert McCrum’s The Guardian 100 greatest novels published in English list is also contained in the Wikipedia article about it. This centred around the under-representation of women and Irish authors — 21 and 9 respectively. (Incidentally, two Aussies got a guernsey — Parick White and Peter Carey.)

My main objections to 100-greatest lists are the arbitrariness of the parameters and the subjectivity of the selection. Take the parameters  first. These lists are usually, in practice if not explicitly, “100 greatest novels In English“. (Kudos to McCrum for being upfront about that.) But why limit the list to fiction written or published in one language? Okay, most native English speakers are monoglot. But why exclude fiction originally written in other languages, which has been translated to English? Can a 100-greatest novels list exclude Don Quixote, In search of lost time, Madame Bovary, The brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace, for starters?

The difficulty of the selection is more obvious when you set yourself the task of  designing an English literature curriculum from scratch. Who would you put in? Most people would say, Shakespeare. After that, there is less agreement. Milton? Oh, yes, absolutely — although no-one actually reads him, any more, do they? Dickens? Yes, OK. Henry James? Ah — righto. George Eliot? Bit stodgy, isn’t she? Hang on, you have to leave her in. Otherwise you’ve just got dead white males. The Authorised Version of the Bible? That’s a bit political. As you go past Shakespeare, there is less and less consensus, and everyone will have their favourite candidate to include or exclude.

The commodification of reading that underlies many 100-greatest lists is one reason to be uneasy about them. The links in The Postmodern Mystery Reading List (the first list in the examples I give below) point to Amazon. Does this represent a potential conflict of interest for the compiler? Would he or she include a title that, for some reason, wasn’t available on Amazon?

These things don’t have to be monetised. The assumption that this is the only way to do it is part of the neoliberal agenda. How much better would it be if these links pointed to the local library? Literature-oriented web resources like LibraryThing include a link to a resource called WorldCat on most pages. See this page for an example; the WorldCat link is in the right hand side bar. (If you have no interest in searching your local library catalogue, skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

WorldCat may require a one-off registration, in which one’s location is disclosed. There is no problem with doing this. OCLC has been around since I did librarianship about fifty years ago. As they stylishly explain, OCLC is “a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services, original research and community programs for its membership and the library community at large.” Clear as mud? Just give them what they are asking for. You won’t end up on someone’s mailing list. (A tip — to find your library, try putting in the name of your local government area, rather than your suburb or town.)

Once you are registered, put in a book title. If it is held in a library within coo-ee, you will — with some persistence — see a listing for it. WorldCat is clunky as to use. But, and it’s a big but, it gives a low-cost or free alternative to Amazon for getting your hands on a book.  You may have to use interlibrary loan, for which some less enlightened library services charge a few dollars. But that’s surely less than the book would cost to buy.

In having a shot at 100-greatest lists, I am not trying to be a literary snob, or implying that people should somehow just know what to read. The republic of letters is open to any literate citizen. I am fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of reading, and it is very important to me. People need to use whatever works for them to get the most out of their reading. If this includes 100-best lists, go for it!

“Great books” courses, to me, are another kind of 100-greatest lists. They are pretty popular in certain circles. Melbourne University is running a short course, 10 Great Books 2019. Wrong number, same idea. Sydney University was supposed to be running a Great Books program, funded by a neoconservative outfit, the Ramsay Centre. The article from the SMH traverses the culture wars controversy that accompanied the discussion about the course. My recollection is that the university and the Centre couldn’t agree on how it was to be done.  I found a Honi Soit article (imagine Honi being online!) that seemed to cast doubt on whether the program was to proceed or not. If anyone can cast light on this, make a comment, or let me know.

Below are some examples of 100-greatest lists. These all open in a new tab. None of the articles they point to is behind a paywall, to my knowledge; some may require free registration. (To find more, just do a Google search on “books to read before you die”.)

Other questions that could be asked of 100-greatest lists include

  1. What are the criteria for inclusion? Are they just books that the compiler likes?
  2. What expertise does the compiler have in the topic?
  3. What is the rating system by which books are assessed?
  4. What did the process by which the list was compiled, involve? For example, how many books were read?
  5. Are only books originally published in English considered? Why?

http://www.postmodernmystery.com/reading_list.html

http://www.greatbooksguide.com/ArtofFiction.html

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/100-books-to-read-before-you-die

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

From Agatha Christie to Gillian Flynn: 50 great thrillers by women

Top 10 books about angry women

Tales of the unexpected: 10 literary classics you may not have read