Category Archives: Reading

‘Lady Franklin’s Revenge’ by Ken McGoogan

2006, 435p & notes

The author of this book has written several biographies related to arctic exploration and one senses that he came to this biography almost grudgingly.  His other biographies focus on Arctic heroes- John Rae, Samuel Hearne and Elisha Kent Kane.  Amongst these male explorers, Lady Jane Franklin must have seemed an obsessed, vindictive, indulged woman, intent on pushing forward her husband’s reputation to the expense of others’.   Perhaps McGoogan still feels that way, but it seems that he found much more in Jane Franklin than he expected to.

Well educated and well-to-do, Jane Griffin did not marry John Franklin the Arctic explorer until she was thirty-seven years old.  He was a fleshy, dull man and she was driven and ambitious and she used her connections to procure a position for him on the Mediterranean, and later as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land.  She was an inveterate traveller, heading off for months and sometimes years at a time, accompanied by her iron bedstead which she insisted on having assembled for her on her travels.

The author is Canadian, with a readership no doubt attuned to Arctic themes.  But as an Australian, Lady Jane Franklin is far more familiar to us as the Governor’s wife; we see her in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; we know of the Franklin River, and her diaries while travelling to Melbourne and Sydney have been well-mined. In fact, there seems to have been quite a Lady Jane Franklin revival recently.

McGoogan captures well the limitations of women’s financial position and influence in Victorian Britain.  He describes well the small-colony political machinations surrounding the dismissal of the VDL Colonial Secretary Montagu, and the lumbering, stiff style of Colonial Office politics and communications.  Lady Jane Franklin has money in her purse to bankroll numerous expeditions in search of her husband when he disappears into the Arctic white and she uses her connections with Dickens, the media, the American government and the Admiralty well.

There is much detail in this book- rather too much, I thought.  He does rise above the mass of detail to make informed and informative observations about gender, patronage, love, women’s position, memory and memorialization, but sometimes it is engulfed by too much information. Of course, Jane Franklin is a generous source: she diarized her life extensively; there is a wealth of communication; the Colonial Office and British bureaucracy built their edifice on paper and she used the public sphere to her advantage.  It is an embarrassment of riches- oh to have that as a problem! but I can see that sometimes you just have to say ‘enough’.

‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader’ by Anne Fadiman

1998, 125p.

My husband gave me this book.  He bought it second-hand for $1.99 at an op-shop  and inscribed it.  None of this may seem significant, but after reading this small delightful morsel of a book you’ll realize that it is.  The book is a compilation of  “The Common Reader” columns that over a number of years Anne Fadiman contributed to Civilization magazine, the journal of the Library of Congress.  Hence, the chapters are short (4 or 5 pages) , snappy and personal and you come to feel that you are in the company of a good friend who shares your love of reading.  The book as object is itself a thing of beauty- very small, with a tasteful crimson and gold cover with what looks like a gold-embossed bookplate on the front.

Its opening chapter concerns the merging of book collections of two avid readers and immediately this struck home.  Mr R.J. and I have quite distinct collections aided by the rather unconventional design of our living arrangements- we live in two separate but joined units with our own separate lounge rooms, kitchens, bedrooms etc.  I suppose that at some stage we will actually live in the same house- but what to do with the books?

Mind you, he has FAR more than I do.  He is the most appalling library patron, accumulating fines with gay abandon.  He reads more voraciously than I do, and is happy to have his reading diet determined by what he finds in op-shops, garage sales and fetes. He is equally reluctant to relinquish them.   He ALWAYS finds good books amongst towering piles in second-hand bookshops, even though I might have looked at the same pile just two minutes earlier.

And yes, they are doubled-up on the shelves.

My collection is much more modest, and particularly in the relatively new shelves in the study (which is itself a new incarnation of my son’s bedroom now that he’s moved out of home), there’s PLENTY of space to buy more!  I’m more a library-gal myself and I make good use of the “place hold” function on the library catalogue to borrow books that I see in bookshops selling new.  However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ephemerality of book availability nowadays with books often restricted to the initial edition and shunted off the shelves for the next new thing, so I tend to buy more non-fiction than I used to.  The fiction shelves in the lounge room (a particularly crowded loungeroom at the moment because it has to also accommodate my precariously-balanced Christmas tree) are doubled up, but at the moment the non-fiction shelves in the study are single-row only and share the space with scanners, printer paper,  recipe books and unopened issues of ABR and The Monthly.

But how to merge our collections?  It’s quite clear that there’s not room for both Mr R.J.’s books  and my own.  Anne Fadiman and her husband George, who shares her love of books, have had to face this problem.  It took them about a week to sort out the duplicates, then face the trauma of deciding ‘yours or mine’?  Hardbacks prevailed over paperbacks, unless the paperbacks contained marginalia.  The task completed, they kissed, and felt that they were now TRULY married.  I shall take another tack.   For me, I turn my eyes to our rumpus room, which was formerly a double garage that joins the two units and which we’ll keep if and when we “move in together” at a combined age of well over a century!  Yes, there’s scope for books here, with a gas-fired fake fire, winter sun, a  whole wall of shelf space and two under-utilised bookshelves there already.  I’m thinking -“hmmm, compactus!”

(Actually, looking at these photos about to be launched into the blogosphere,  I’m a little embarrassed by my furniture.  Our house is frozen in 1980s decor- no polished boards and downlights for us! I tell myself that our furniture will soon be ‘vintage’ and that people will murmur in appreciation, rather than disapprobation at its 1980s authenticity.)

Enough about me- back to Anne Fadiman and her books.  And really, that’s what this book is about: the importance of books to a book-lover’s lifestyle, environment and identity even.  It’s a lovesong to the act of reading, and you find yourself smiling, with a mixture of recognition and confession, at a kindred-spirit.  It’s all here- the lure of the second-hand book; the conversation of the annotation; the treasure-hunt of the footnote; the pedantry of apostrophes and spelling errors.  This is a delightful book- in fact, I eked it out over about a fortnight, a chapter a night,  not wanting to relinquish a conversation with a book-loving friend who knows me so well!

The lost history of library books

I’ve recently finished reading a 1970s, much-cited history book that I borrowed from my university library.  It was on the shelf for borrowing, rather than being superannuated off into the CARM centre, a “repository for low-use and last copy research publications and artefacts” that is located somewhere at La Trobe.  I don’t know exactly where on campus it is located: the librarian I asked came over all shy and evasive- it’s all a bit mysterious and reminiscent of the Cemetery of Lost Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s  Shadow of the Wind.

But this particular book was sitting there on the shelf, still optimistically expecting to be borrowed. When I turned to the back of it, I was delighted to see it still had the date stamp pages from its many, many borrowings- in fact, it had eight sheets of them!

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The book was first borrowed in September 1976, when it must have been relatively hot-off-the-press, as its publication date in England was 1975.   It was borrowed at least once every year between 1976 and 1996, with particularly heavy borrowing in 1981 and 1982 when it was put onto the reserve desk for three-hour loan.  But alas, the trail grows cold after 2001 when the library decided to no longer date stamp books but to issue a receipt instead.

I’m nosy enough to always scrutinize the receipts I find in the books I’m borrowed, to check out what other books other anonymous patrons have borrowed along with this one.  It’s an ephemeral pleasure though, because the receipt I found in this book, from July 2007 had faded so much that it’s barely legible.

But this book yielded another little treasure- a Call Reserve slip.  I haven’t seen one for years (although this one hasn’t been filled in correctly).

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Reserve fines 60 cents per hour eh? They’re now $2.50 for any part of the the first hour, then $1.00 an hour after that.

The $10.00 accrual limit still stands. I have reached it -ahem- once or twice.

I always loved the paraphenalia of the library borrowing process.  My library card was a treasured item- in fact, my local library FORCED me to finally change to one of their swipe cards just recently, but I still kept the original card.  I used to love being on lunchtime library duty in primary school, and being a library monitor who covered the books and got to paint the call number on the spine after the beautifully coloured dustjacket had been taken off  (why, oh why?) and stored in the map drawer.  I didn’t possess all that many books of my own- probably only one shelf- but they were all in alphabetical order by author, adorned with a call number, with a catalogue card in a little tin file.  All my dolls had a library card and were issued with loans, with the due date stamped onto a page glued onto the back just like the book I borrowed this week,  and they were all duly fined when they failed to return them on time (no doubt because they were such party animals).

When it came to choosing a career, there was no question of going to university unless I received a studentship, which suited me fine as I couldn’t decide between teacher/librarian or classroom teacher. But I had to designate one or the other on the application form, and so I did- then changed my mind, took the form back and altered it to the other- changed my mind again- and- again.  Eventually the form was sent off and my fate was sealed- classroom teacher.

I love being able to search catalogues on-line, and databases are things of wonder (and hours of lost time).  It’s great being able to renew your own books over the internet, and to put a hold on books you notice while browsing the catalogue- an activity you’d be unlikely to undertake with the old card catalogues.  But sometimes I miss the knowledge that the book I hold in my hand has been held by nameless others, and that I’m just one in a long line of borrowers.

Reading and place

At the moment I’m reading Davidoff and Hall’s book Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. You may wonder what the connection is with Port Phillip of the 1840s, but I’m interested in the values and mental baggage that this largely immigrant population brought with them from England.   The attitudes, fashions and values of British society ‘back home’ was reinforced with the arrival of each ship, spilling forth people who had recently departed England, Ireland or Scotland and the letters from family members they carried with them.  Events and feature articles would be lifted direct from the newspapers from Britain, America and other British colonies and republished in the local press, constituting almost a quarter of the newspaper.

Hence, this book.  I started reading it in January, down by the beach, sheltering under the trees to escape the oppressive heat.  It was high summer, but before the bushfires.  I put it aside for some months, but have picked it up again over the last few weeks. And here I am still  reading it in May,  the frost burnt off my now-green lawn by the weak autumn sun, with the heater purring away in the background.  But mentally, I will always be reading this book by the beach.

Which started me thinking about the way that particular books are linked in my memory with where I read them.  For example, Lord of the Rings will always be associated with lying on the grass in my parents’ very small backyard in summer in the 1970s after finishing VCE.  Crime and Punishment evokes a wintry afternoon, listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and thinking about the funeral of a 16 year old classmate that morning- he had been killed by his younger brother in a fit of rage with a billiard cue in their rumpus room.  Sue Miller’s The Good Mother will always be entwined with memories of an autumn by the Murray River, lying on a rug with a glass of wine as the sun slipped behind the trees.

I notice that most of these books were important to me, and heaven knows that there are hundreds (indeed thousands? I wonder?)  that I’ve read with no clear memory of ever having read them.    Do you have particular associations of a book with a specific place and time?