Saturday, March 9, 2013

Jane Goodall hosts our new feature: "The Reading Life"

Jane Goodall, painted by Deirdra Drysdale
In an exciting new development for the Universal Heart Book Club, "The Reading Life", award-winning writer, superb writing teacher and life-long reader Jane Goodall invites you to write, talk, share and enrich your own reading life. Jane will present you with a new invitation most months. We would love you to accept it! This month's theme is "the READING RETREAT". Does that get you thinking? We would particularly welcome your comments and participation.

Jane writes: Some years ago I had a postcard from a good friend who had taken up a new job in a town where he didn’t really know anyone. ‘I’m lost,’ he said.  ‘I have no time to read, and as someone who lives to read and reads to live, I need others around me who are like this too.’

That phrase – ‘lives to read and reads to live’ – has stayed in the reservoir of my memory and every time it surfaces I am struck by how there is something absolutely right about it. If you take just the first part, ‘lives to read,’ it might express some form of escapism, a resort to the world of books as a substitute for the world in which we conduct our daily lives. But then comes the second part of the equation, ‘reads to live,’ and that assumption is turned on its head.

The world of reading is the same as the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. It is not separate, any more than blood is separate from flesh, or water from air. Through reading, the life of the mind circulates and brings new energies and insights to how we act. These may be quite subtle, but they may also be enduring and sustaining.

Reading, like writing, is a form of communication, and as the silent partner in the exchange, is too often taken for granted. Without readers, a book is a gift only to its author. It is readers who make it live and cause its vital qualities to be released. So welcome to The Reading Life, a new space in the Universal Heart Book Club devoted to conversations about reading. Each month we will have a theme or question to explore and we would love to have your contributions.

                                    This month’s theme: “The READING RETREAT”.

Many of us have been on a writing course or retreat, but have you ever thought about a reading retreat? A week in some beautiful, quiet environment, with the books of your choice and “all the time in the world” to devote to them? That’s the kind of respite many of us long for.  So my questions for you are:

If you were to go on a reading retreat, where would that be?
And what three books would you take with you?

They may be books you want to re-read, or books you have always meant to read; books that are a special challenge to your concentration, or books that are sheer escapism; novels, volumes of poetry, travel books, memoirs; books from your childhood, or books hot off the press. Think about what would make a good combination and sustain you over a week. Perhaps above all else, make your choices fairly instinctively and let yourself be surprised. Once you have chosen your ideal place, and the books that will go with you, share your thoughts with us.

Please keep your responses to fewer than 200 words. You can type them in the “Comments” box below. Easy to use either with a Google email address or using "Anonymous".  If “Anonymous”, you can put your name into the text box. You must bear with us and use "captcha" - which screens out spammers - but the trick there is to note there are TWO parts, with a space between. Or if you prefer, you can email to making it clear whether you want your name used when we post your thoughts. (200 word max!)

My own wish list?
For a place, the Bunya Mountains in Australia’s South East Queensland. There are cottages for rent, with wood fire stoves and many wonderful reading spots: decks overlooking the hillside, garden tables, a fireside corner if it is cold, and a rustic cafĂ© nearby. And there is rainforest to wander in when you need a break from the books, to just think and re-live what you have been reading.

A Bunya Mountain walk

And for my choice of books?

Something hugeLes Miserables by Victor Hugo. It's a true epic, a marvelous weave of inter-generational story lines and revolutionary politics, with strong human themes. As it's 1200 pages long, it's definitely one for the retreat.
Something contemplativeRilke's Prayers of a Young Poet, translated with such wisdom and artistry by Mark S. Burrows. Here, reading means more than just turning the pages. It is about developing a relationship, through re-reading, thinking, reading again, as images and lines find their way into permanent memory
Something currentBarbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour. This is partly because the ecological themes attract me, but it is also a tribute to the Universal Heart Book Club. This was given a special recommendation in December 2012 by Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason, who are such excellent judges of fiction.
(Both Flight Behaviour and Rilke's Prayers of a Young Poet were reviewed on this blog in December 2012. Check our blog archive to the right. Or click on the links above.)

And now, let's hear from you!  Your special place?  Your special book choices?

Jane Goodall is one of Australia's most talented essayists and critics. She is also a successful novelist, a truly gifted, thoughtful writing teacher and, for many years, an academic with a particular interest in theatre. Put her name into our "Search this blog" above and find her other wonderful contributions here.

Jane Goodall with her gloriously smiling dog.
Your writing life
You can purchase any book through our bookstore links (above right). The small % returned to us supports the Universal Heart Book Club. 
To post your comments: if you don't have a Google email, just use "Anonymous" (and put your name in the text book if you would like to). Follow the “captcha” instructions noting that it’s always two "words" with a space between. This will save us from spammers. Should be easy! Or if you prefer, you can email Jane with your thoughts at making it clear whether you want your name used when we post what you have shared. (200 words max!)


  1. Marie Cameron's "place" comes first. And in a separate comment, her "three books"

    I would go to Norfolk Island for my reading retreat. It is a lightly populated island, with no TV and I think no radio (or few radio stations), so I would not have these modern media to distract me. It has great natural beauty and considerable historical interest, and both these things are important to me. When I needed a break from reading, I would be able to go for a walk, or have a swim, or visit the historical areas of Kingston or the cemetery. While there, it is very difficult to know what is happening in the rest of the world, so I would be able to concentrate on my reading.

  2. Marie Cameron's books she would take to Norfolk Island...

    I would take the following three books:

    1. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. This is simply my favourite novel in all the world. I love it for the elegant writing and for Austen's deep understanding of human nature and skill at characterisation. I always marvel at this, given the era she lived in and her rather restricted social environment. I never tire of reading it.

    2. The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska. This wonderful novel again shows skill at characterisation, and deftly develops the characters in the setting of political, emotional and social issues leading up to self government and then independence for Papua New Guinea, with themes of cultural issues and inter-racial relationships. [This is reviewed here at the Univ Heart Book Club. Go to "search".]

    3. A book of Judith Wright's poetry. Poetry is my favourite form of writing and nature and human relationships are the themes that are most important to me. Wright has written superb poetry, mainly around these two themes. Again, I never tire of reading her.

  3. (From "A Virginia Woolf-fan").

    My ideal place would be a small B&B anywhere near Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, where I could wander the gardens designed by Vita Sackville-West, visit her writing tower, and re-read my favourite Virginia Woolf novels, Mrs Dalloway and The Voyage Out, as well Woolf's glorious Diaries and Letters. Oh, and Three Guineas too for some feminist fire. Vita and Virginia were friends, lovers and great literary companions. I'd feel so inspired to read where they also read and wrote.
    Thank you for giving me this chance to dream!

    1. Oh I can relate to this a long-time V. Woolf fan myself. And because I have been to Sissinghurst Castle (actually not so much a "castle" as a big house with smaller houses around and set in the most exquisite gardens) a number of times. But the reading retreats in rural Queensland also sound entrancing. I am really enjoying this new feature, Jane!

  4. From Susan K. Sutherland As a writing retreat I would like to return to Cherrabah Homestead Resort at Warwick Qld.  It has private bush cabins, lovely bush walks and you can journey to hidden places with hanging rocks, old cabins and rock pools.  It has several meeting places, indoors and out, and an atmosphere that has an interesting clash of Australian and Chinese culture. 
    My first book would be the New Testament of the Bible.  It may not be a trendy choice, but I would like to take the time to endeavour to understand the beauty and power of the parables and my own spirituality. As I am working on improving my skills in short story writing, I would also take a collection of Roald Dahl’s and Jeffrey Archer’s short stories and take the time to study methods and style.  I would lastly take Alice LaPlante’s ‘The Making of a Story’ and work through all the exercises with the goal of having a fully developed short story by the end of the retreat.  I am sorry that this seems more like a writing retreat or spiritual retreat than a reading retreat, but I am unable to separate the three.  Perhaps they are inseparable? 

  5. There's a beach house I sometimes have access to, on the northern beaches of Sydney. Looks like any old house from the street but on the back deck, in total privacy, all sorts of birds visit and there's nothing but sea to see between me and New Zealand..

    I'd write there.

    And read - again The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak; and For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke; and then some Buddhist teachings..maybe something as yet unread by Pema Chodron.

    :-) Anita

  6. Coming to you all the way from gorgeous, exotic Brooklyn, NY:
    I would go to anywhere in the Virgin Islands (US or UK), hopefully near one of those pristine white beaches and with my mask and snorkel handy!

    As for the 3 books, I would have to choose "The Gulag Archipelago", "The Good Soldier Svejk" and probably "A Farewell to Arms".

  7. My retreat:

    Herm Island, a tiny lump of land three miles away from Guernsey in the Channel Islands: There were no distractions twenty years ago when I visited for the day; no phones, television, cars, bikes… the island had one tractor ploughing a familiar trip from the precarious ferry landing to the hotel.

    My chosen books:

    “The Celtic Twilight – Faerie and Folklore” by W B Yeats: I expect it will weave tales of spectacular and valiant action and be my gateway to Yeats’ works.

    Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”: I really enjoyed this book and would like to read it a second time. I admired Smilla’s courage and perseverance.

    “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. I compare Mildred’s wall-to-wall soap operas with the reality programmes flickering across giant flat-screen televisions in today’s “media rooms” and am glad for the Granger’s and Montag’s of this world. I think it would be a perfect read on a cold island by a warm fire…

    Hope this fits the bill? Was happy to try this as have been tackling my brother-in-law's latest book called "Is China buying the world?" (Great red cover with one yellow star on a black shopping trolley.) It's only the second he's written that I can cope with as a 'lay person'. Anyway, it had made me think about what I'd like to read next and these were some that came to mind. It was hard to confine the list to three.

  8. i would like a tree house in a sprawling Peppermint tree called A Room of One's Own set in some beautiful landscape of bush and sea, with a large stone bath tub filled with bubbles and a stack of books on a stool beside it.