The books not taken

We went by ship to Tasmania, spent half a week in the northwest and the other half in the southeast. Both were spectacular, and we were blessed with what locals thought uncanny sunshine. Packing Robert Frost was an afterthought, but one I was heartily glad of. I had decided not to take any fiction. Knowing myself, I knew any novel would sap the better part of my attention, and seduce me away from harder reading and from observation. So I took theology, philosophy, criticism - and Frost. By week's end most of the prose was still untouched, but I had read more than a hundred poems; by sunlight in the day, and by torchlight in our tent at night. There was something especially harmonious about reading Frost while living out of doors. There was scant resemblance to Frost's New England, but there was still a resonance in what I saw with what I read of tree and bird and apple blossom, of daybreak and nightfall. I relished Frost's quiet attention to his world. Without requiring too much interpretative labour, Frost's poetry gave me a liturgy for my enjoyment. Where fiction would have led me astray from where we were, his poetry led me to look more closely and see more clearly the road we travelled by. And that has made all the difference.

History vs non-fiction

In preparation for an approaching holiday I borrowed two books from the public library: James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land, and Nicholas Shakespeare's In Tasmania. The first is a fairly substantial history in the traditional mold, with the requisite scholarly apparatus and a focus on the early period of convict settlement. The second is what would now be classified as literary non-fiction, with a more nebulous attachment to history, a kinship with travel writing, and good dose of memoir.

While I like the idea of literary non-fiction a lot, and I think experimentation with the form has produced some rich and luminous writing, I lost the thread of Shakespeare's book very early on, and then lost the will to find it. So much splicing of history with genealogy with anecdote, jumping back and forth between the present, the recent past and the remote past, often on the same page, with no attempt to stitch the patches together, left me bewildered, struck not so much with any sense of Tasmania's history or present life as with a sense of Shakespeare's defiance of convention. The writing, for me anyway, was too obviously its own object. By contrast, Boyce's book is logical and meticulous, but still manages to be vivid and compelling reading. He tells an unembellished but fascinating tale of Tasmania's earliest European occupants, creating an engaging mix of material and intellectual history that finds its own place in historical discourse.

Generally the idea of amplifying, personalising, beautifying, liberating non-fiction from some of its constraints is a good one and has been a constructive force, particularly in academic writing. Leaving behind the conventions of a false objectivity and a falsely impersonal tone, and pushing over some of the fences that kept out experience and lyricism has only been good for non-fiction writing. But a few recent examples - to Shakespeare I would add Rebecca Skloot and Judith Shulevitz, and there are probably others - have I think gone slightly too far. Their lush, rambling accounts, personalised to the point of idiosyncracy, so radically domesticate their subjects that little remains of that public significance which made them worthy of non-fiction in the first place. Successful literary non-fiction depends on bringing emotion, experience and aestheticism into public conversations, rather than taking public subjects home.