Opening Harry Hartog Bookstore

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited to open Harry Hartog bookstore in Woden. Here's my launch speech:

Opening of Harry Hartog Bookstore
Woden, Canberra, 24 October 2014

It is a delight to be at a book store opening in the era of book store closings.

I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I’d like to thank Robert and David Berkelouw for inviting me, and James and Michelle for their hospitality – and for generously placing a few copies of my books at the front, so you can’t possibly get out of the store without tripping over them.

As Groucho Marx observed: outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend – and inside a dog it’s too dark to read anyway.

Books help open our eyes and our minds to other worlds. I look around here and I see Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which helps you think about autism in entirely different ways. I look down the back and see the shelf entirely dedicated to books by former Ministers who served in the Rudd and Gillard Governments and they too will help you think about the world in different ways.

When I was an ANU academic in 2010 I did a survey of then Federal Politicians to find out what they were reading. I had no idea at the time that I would end in federal politics a few months after the article was published in the Australian Literary Review.

My friend Macgregor Duncan and I were curious to see what politicians were reading, so we sent out our survey to all the 226 members and senators in the federal parliament and harassed them by email and phone until we got a reasonable response rate.

Here, then, are the favourite authors of the parliament of 2010. In the non-fiction category, Nelson Mandela, Robert Caro, Les Carlyon and the Bible. In the fiction category, Leo Tolstoy, Harper Lee and J.R.R. Tolkien. Then there’s George Orwell, who’s fiction work is beloved by those on right of politics and non-fiction work is appreciated by those on the left of politics. Go figure.

Books have always been important to Australian politics. Curtin, Chifley and Keating didn’t have tremendous formal education but they were all autodidacts who took reading seriously and for whom reading shaped their notion of leadership. Harry Truman famously said ‘All leaders must be readers’. The key insight there is that you can never meet enough people to truly get an understanding of the human condition. Books can open up worlds that would otherwise be inaccessible. Books aren’t everything, but good politicians will have both their Tolstoy and their mobile offices.

The pleasure of being here is not only in speaking with you, but also in being able to sign a few books, and help my books make their way out the door. The great fear of every author is that our books will not make it out of the store, and will instead end up on the remainder table. Conversely, the great delight is to find on the remainder table a book by somebody you despise.

Which brings me to that great book store poem: Clive James’s ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered’. Allow me to read a few verses.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

Do you guys have a remainder table by the way? No? That’s good to hear. I probably should have checked before I started reading this poem.

Clive James goes on.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,

With that I welcome you to Harry Hartog. Ours is an era in which we have fewer book stores and yet more readers than ever before. Which I think ought to give us a little bit of hope for Australia’s future.

But bookstores allow us to do something that we can’t do online, that we can’t do with a Kindle. Here in Harry Hartog, we can ask advice of experts like James and Michelle. We can have that moment serendipity where we move from one shelf to another and discover a book that we never though would be interesting until you flip through a few pages. We can enjoy the social life with other book lovers.

With that, it is my pleasure officially to declare Harry Hartog Woden open. May it last many years.


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