Review Blog

Jan 23 2013

The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson

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Text Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781921922985.
(Age: Mid secondary - Adult) Recommended. Is 'greatness an attribute that we value in authors anymore'? In The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, Geordie Williamson takes the provocative stance, particularly against Australian academia, that students are not exposed to enough of our greatest writers. Of course, 'greatness' can be subjective but Williamson believe that the Australian literary canon has been dismantled by academics 'in the name of greater inclusiveness and democracy' - hence the perceived equal value of a bus ticket and Moby Dick, for example. Williamson is knowledgeable and erudite and his book will hopefully generate, if not 'Literature Wars', but a powerful petition for study of Australian classics.
About fourteen authors and their works are analysed in dedicated chapters, although there is overlap between these writers and also those not featured, such as Thea Astley. Williamson focuses on his chosen authors' most important works, or those that advance his own thesis. Even though Williamson explains why he has selected these authors, it would be interesting for readers to add to his list. Thomas Shapcott and David Foster come to mind. And conversely, how can Williamson justify including Thomas Keneally and Patrick White as overlooked writers, even if White may not be read as much as expected? Female writers form about fifty percent of the content - a laudable but unforced effort by Williamson. They include Elizabeth Harrower, Christina Stead and Amy Witting (who, incidentally, worked at Sydney's Cheltenham Girls' High School).
The Burning Library is a useful resource to scaffold close study of the chosen authors and their texts in secondary and tertiary institutions. Quotes from great writing are also analysed. But will this book tempt young readers to read any of the featured literature? I think it could be the catalyst for a fascination with Australian literature but, of course, nothing beats reading the books themselves.
Joy Lawn

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