Saturday 2 February 2019

Books That Saved My Life by Michael McGirr

Books That Saved My Life: Reading For Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure was a delightful book all about books by Australian essayist Michael McGirr. It was a lovely mix of classics, international and Australian stories and poems. McGirr showed us with each and every chapter how reading and rereading favourite books is a personal experience as well as a universal one.

At every season of life, the mind needs to be nurtured. It needs challenges. reading is as much a part of investing in yourself as are gyms, financial planning and relationships. It will feed your hungry mind and take your heart on a journey.

The way he combined each book, the author and his own journey with the story is what I attempt to do here on my blog. It could have been a frustrating thing to see how far I still have to travel to be that kind of writer, but instead, I found McGirr's essays inspiring.

He is obviously a Tim Winton fan:

Cloudstreet is joyous. It is full of both sunshine and shadow....It is a book about home written by someone who was far from home. 
Eyrie tackles myths of prosperity and success in a way that is not always comfortable but that stirs thought....It has a strong belief that no journey ends at the halfway mark.

I love how he described his personal reactions to various authors - for instance - Toni Morrison "is one of the few writers who has reduced me to tears. That's not quite right. She has elevated me to tears."

He helped to turn me onto writers I had little or no interest in reading:

There is more to Mary Gilmore than nostalgia. She gave voice to the pain and neglect suffered by women who were required to accommodate the wild dreams and poor behaviour of menfolk.

McGirr's joy of reading was evident in every essay. His description of Joseph Conrad was pure magic:

You don't splash about in his books They swell around you like a Mahler symphony.

Having studied Donne at school, reluctantly only at the beginning, I'm now always attracted to anyone else who also has a thing for Donne. I wish I'd had this quote at my fingertips for my 1985 HSC exams:

Donne's erotic verse rescues sex from the rubble of consumer cliches and gives voice to all the anxiety that comes with getting close to a real person. His religious verse brings erotic intensity to the pursuit of faith.

McGirr also talked about teaching and education. As a former teacher, all I can say is that 'once a teacher, always a teacher'. You never get over that love of learning or the desire to impart that love to others. Sadly the modern classroom and curriculum is not designed for this kind of teaching at all.

Modern education is prone to neglect the importance of memory. This does not mean rote learning. It means taking something important into the fabric of your being. People who have memorised great poetry will speak about this....
The memory is like a muscle. It needs to do heavy lifting to gain its strength and power.

However, it was his writing on writing that has given me the most food for thought. He has left me wondering how to extend my creative writing self:

I think we should write at the very edge of what we know, pushing from the familiar into the unfamiliar, stumbling into areas where we are unsure if we can find words for what needs to be said.

Books That Saved My Life is a book for bibliophiles everywhere.
Now that I've been converted to the joy of books about books, please let me know your favourite ones to tempt me further!


  1. This seems like another good book about books. I just finished Morningstar by Ann Hood, a memoir of sorts but mostly about the books that made her want to become an author and I loved it (no review yet but soon).

    1. For some strange reason I haven't read many books about books and except for my 2 versions of the 1001 books to read before you die, I'm not sure if I own any. Certainly when you find an author whose reading style matches or complements your own, it's a totally charming and affirming thing :-)

  2. Just a wonderful review
    ....reading between the lines I can sense you've been
    touched by the 'muse' Michael McGirr!
    I must admit I did 'splash around' Joseph Conrad yesterday (The Heart of Darkness)
    ...but Conrad's novels Nostromo and Lord Jim are truly symphonic!

    1. Thank you Nancy, yes I was very touched by McGirr's obvious love of books. We shared a love for so many of the same authors and books & on the strength of that I will be looking out for/looking forward to reading the other ones he discussed that I haven't read yet.

      One of my colleagues preferred HoD to Lord Jim, but other reviews I've read suggests that LJ is Conrad's true masterpiece. I will find out for myself one day (the HoD part; I already know that I found LJ truly magnificent).

  3. I re read HoD only recently, haven't read Lord Jim but love The Secret Agent. I really commented though to ask what he read of Mary Gilmore. And great last quote!

    1. I'm so glad you asked Bill!
      It's one her poems from The Passionate Heart (1918) - I was planning to feature it next Thursday - Eve Song.

  4. I must look for this one. I hope it is not another one of these books that takes forever to get to America.

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