We Australians have recently been told by a friendly American, whose opinion we are forced to respect, that we are in no sense to be regarded as a book-loving people, since, in the matter of libraries, we are behind the nations and behind the times.
To other native Australians whose early environment was such as mine, this statement may come as a shock to their national pride, and call for some readjustment of values. In every home that I occupied as a youth in the Australian hinterland there existed a library or at least a fairly well-stocked book case; and so it was in the homes of my intimate friends. Thus I assumed, rather indolently, that these were typical Australian homes.
This belief was further strengthened by a statement then current that, in the matter of verse, if not of other literary matters, Australians bought (and presumably read) more books in proportion to population than any other people. That statement received wide publicity and general credence in my young days, and we rather plumed ourselves upon it. Today I have grave doubts about it.
Upon my removal to the city (went on the monologist, helping himself from my cigarette case), I naturally consorted with rather bookish men - men who took some interest in modern literature and had at least a passing knowledge of the major classics. Not that we were intellectually snobbish in any degree. On the contrary, such attention as we gave to the reading of books (chiefly for pleasure) we regarded as a quality shared by all fellow Australians of average intelligence. Again, this was a rather lazy assumption, born of national pride, that we took little pains to justify.
And side by side with this assumption, was that other one - so easily acquired in those days and in the environment I inhabited - that Australians were the salt of the earth, unequalled in intelligence, initiative, commonsense, sterling honesty and freedom from trammelling tradition. For tradition appealed to me at that time, never as a source of inspiration but ever as a handicap to a mentally bright and freedom-loving people.
This rabid Australianism was not perhaps altogether a bad thing at that period; for its exaggerated tendency did help to combat a certain anti-Australianism in regard to industry and manufacture that was concurrently rife in many quarters.
Do not assume, however, that since then I have swung to the other extreme and slunk into the slough of a sense of national inferiority. Far from it. My opinion of my fellow Australian is still high, but it is qualified by chastening experience.
I do not know if or how my book-loving friends of the old days awoke to a measure of disillusionment that served to temper and sanely modify our exaggerated patriotism. To me the awakening came with a series of shocks hotly resented at the time.
The first shattering explosion came, I remember, when an artistic friend, returning after a long sojourn abroad, referred to Australia ("His own Australia," I remember thinking) as "an almost purely agricultural community with a very limited appreciation of literature and an artistic and aesthetic sense that was almost negligible."
I fiercely denied the charge and began to argue warmly. But as he cited instance after instance, made point after point, I found myself seeking excuses. Then, realising that the necessity for excuse betrayed a losing case, I fell sulkily silent while he proceeded to harrow my tenderest susceptibilities with bitter home-truths.
After that I began, so to speak, to sit up and take notice. I began to make inquiries, to employ private tests and engage in devious and secret questionnaires that left me wondering how and where I had acquired my estimate of the well-read Australian.
Somewhere about that time I heard and accepted the true tale of the eminent Victorian pastoralist who, about to entertain an honored visitor from overseas, decided to install a library to impress his distinguished guest. Having erected costly shelves, his next move was to telegraph to a city bookseller for "half a ton of books."
That is an instance, exaggerated slightly if you like, of the average Australian's attitude toward books as a means even of pleasurable relaxation.
And by average Australian I do not refer only to the sport-loving artisan or clerk or shop hand but also to the professional man, the merchant, and to many others regarded as our leading citizens both in town and country.
The truth may be unpleasant to many, but the fact remains that, as a nation, Australia is not a book-loving land. And I know that librarians, publishers and booksellers will support that truth.
The luxury of reading is, after all, rather an acquired taste, and if the average busy Australian has failed to acquire it, that is not so much to his own discredit as to that of our educators, our leaders of thought and, in a measure, to our Governments.
By the way (concluded the monologist) are those imported cigarettes in your case? Thanks. I'll smoke my own; they're Australian.
First published in The Herald, 30 June 1934