When I started The Melbourne Urbanist I wasn’t sure what direction it would take. While primarily about planning and development issues, I imagined it might also have a major sideline in reading and literature.
Hence the Reading page in the sidebar. As things have turned out, there hasn’t been much interest in reading and books. For example, The Melbourne Urbanist had 25,000 visits in November but the Reading page only got 29 views, so next year I’ll probably move it elsewhere.
Clearly the readers of The Melbourne Urbanist don’t come here to talk literature. Fair enough, this is the age of specialisation and that’s one of the things the internet does well. However since it’s the holiday season, I have an excuse to talk books.
The thing newspapers love to do at this time of year is find out who’s reading what. Over the years I’ve found some good reads from seeing what politicians, novelists and others are reading (or say they’re reading). The Grattan Institute has put an interesting twist on this tradition – a suggested summer reading list for the Prime Minister. Here it is:
Fair share, Judith Brett, (Quarterly Essay 42, 2011)
Cities for people, Jan Gehl, (Island Press, 2010)
There goes the neighbourhood, Michael Wesley, (University of New South Wales, 2011)
Balancing the risks, benefits and costs of homeland security, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (article available at http://www.hsaj.org/?article=7.1.16)
The rational optimist, Matt Ridley, (Fourth Estate, 2010)
Cold light, Frank Moorhouse, (Random House Australia, 2011)
Some interesting suggestions. Of these, I’ve only read The rational optimist and can’t recommend it highly enough (I quoted from it yesterday). It would be a great summer read. If you follow the link to the Grattan Institute, there’s an explanation of the thinking behind the list. Anything by Frank Moorhouse should be interesting and Cold light is about power, secrecy and, of all things, urban planning! So I’ll put that on my “to read” list.
Of the books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend Ryan Avent’s The gated city, He argues in a mere 100 pages that opposition to density is a key reason for American economic stagnation. This is an Amazon Kindle “Single” – it only costs $1.99 and if, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it on your computer or, in my case, on an iPhone (not so good for the beach, though). I’ve cited it before, here and here.
I’d also recommend Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature. He argues that violence at both social and personal levels is much lower than historically it’s ever been. Another fascinating book is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: fast and slow. Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel laureate – lots of insight on why we think the way we do and, especially, why we so often get it wrong. Both of these books are long (and in the modern fashion look like they never had an editor), but they’re worth it.
The best novel I’ve read this year – in fact for a while – is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. It deals insightfully and wittily with some big issues. And it’s beautifully written – a deserving winner of the 2010 Booker. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a small, independent literary bookshop in my local shopping centre whose days, I fear, are numbered. I can’t see how it will survive the online challenge. Its likely demise will make the shopping centre even more monocultural. This isn’t a big shop like Readings in Carlton, so its scope to live on by “adding value” for customers is limited.
Some people really love their local bookshops. In Friday’s Crikey, Ben Eltham said “many independent bookshops offer…..character, passion and charm”. What they provide, he says, is:
An induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.
Not sure I like the “secret society” bit, but as a keen reader I understand the delights of browsing, even though I don’t make a lot of use of my local bookshop. Although Readings is further away, I’m much more likely to browse there because I can combine it with a visit to the movies and dinner. Readings is also bigger with a larger range of specialised books.
However the key reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the local store is because, like most people, I’m actually far more interested in reading than I am in the act of buying. The fact is the internet offers me a vastly superior buying/browsing experience and thereby gives me more time to get down to reading.
It goes without saying that I can get books much cheaper online than I can over the local counter. There’s no way even the big chains are competitive on price with Amazon-Book Depository, so my local indie has no chance. And there’s no way any bricks and mortar bookshop in Australia can compete on stock against the online behemoths, especially when it comes to technical books or out of print volumes. A smaller bookshop can’t afford to carry all the works of even popular literary authors. Its big advantage is immediate over-the-counter delivery, but that only works if it has stock.
Then there’s information. Although I hear a lot of talk about the expertise of dedicated bookshop staff, there’s no way they can have the sort of product knowledge that’s just a click away at Amazon. Maybe bookshops run by owner-managers that specialise in arcane topics do, but chances are it’ll be something I’m not interested in. My local is a more general, literary-oriented bookshop.
Somewhere like Amazon gives you instant reviews from literary sources and other readers across the world. Amazon even tailors recommendations for new books based on your search topics and previous purchases. Even on those occasions when I do buy a book from my local (usually a gift so new releases are preferred) I’ve already done my research and know what I’m after.
If I want a novel in a hurry I’ll go to my local bookstore, but unless it’s reasonably popular or new, chances are the proprietor won’t have it in inventory. I can either get the store to order it in or do it myself at substantially lower cost (as well as avoid another trip to the store). In fact these days I’m much more likely to get an electronic copy instantly and read it on my (Kobo) e-reader. A growing proportion of Australians are doing likewise.
Some argue that if we don’t patronise our local bookshops they won’t be there when we need them. They usually turn out to be people who are in the publishing and media business, like Ben Eltham or this writer. The “use it or lose it” argument is of course rubbish – no commercial operation is likely to survive, much less flourish, on this sort of shaky business model. It would be nice to have a local bookshop but it will hardly be the end of civilisation if mine disappears – I’ve got too many other options. Read the rest of this entry »
Review: When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city, Jenny Sinclair, Affirm Press, 2010, Melbourne
One of the observations made by Jenny Sinclair in When we think about Melbourne really strikes a chord with me – just how different the city is when you see it from the saddle of a bicycle. In this extract, she’s just cycled up the middle of St Georges Rd to Reservoir:
Perched on my bike on the track that runs through the park opposite these fine houses, I look down across Preston, Glenroy and to the city, and think: ‘it’s all downhill from here’. When I get home, I felt my sense of the world had expanded a little. Moments like this, of unexpected connection and revelation – I call them ‘surprised by joy’ moments after Wordsworth’s poem – come when we immerse ourselves, when we walk and ride; they are why we should get out of our cars for ourselves, not ‘just’ for the environment or for exercise
Cycling through the city is one of those pleasures that other less-fortunate souls haven’t experienced. Seeing the arse-end of factories from inner city bike trails, the undulating topography, the small exchanges of street life, or the great complexity and detail of inner suburban streetscapes that otherwise might seem regular and monotonous, is to be privy to a hidden world. Read the rest of this entry »