Reinventing our lives: surviving with the help of literature

December 28, 2019 at 6:11 am | Posted in Andrea Goldsmith, Australia behind, Bookshops, capitalism, Charlotte Wood, creativity, depression, Inequality - Australia, mental illness, optimism, value of the arts, writers' health | Leave a comment
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When I was in Dublin in September I bought some wonderful books. A favourite is the intriguing, personal and beautifully written Hidden City: Adventures and explorations in Dublin by Karl Whitney (Penguin, 2014). (I’ve lent it and others to friends and can’t take a photo of its cover or some other favourites at the moment!)

Stitched Up: The anti-capitalist book of fashion (Pluto Press, London, 2014) is a compelling account of how the fashion industry exploits and damages both the environment and individuals. Tansy E. Hoskins’ exposé was an eye-watering shock to me on both counts.

I had no idea about the toxic chemicals involved in high-fashion clothes production, or how, for instance, models are sometimes treated as they are in the pornography industry – dispensable and beneath contempt.

For instance, a model in Milan was recruited for the afternoon’s photo-shoot because the morning’s model was in hospital: the lights were so harsh that they burnt her corneas. (No, they didn’t put in lower wattage globes; they just hired a new model to finish the shoot.)

And most people know by now about the exploitative labour of under-age workers sewing garments for five pence an hour that are then sold in High Street shops that garner the brand-owner millions of pounds per annum.

I know from another source (Michael Winterbottom, talking about his new film, Greed in The Guardian online, 8/10/19) that workers in Myanmar and Bangladesh get $3.60 and $2.84 a day (I assume that’s US dollars) making clothes for British High Street brands, e.g., H & M and Zara. And H & M is owned by Stefan Persson, whose wealth is $18 billion and Zara is owned by Amenio Ortega and he is worth $67 billion.

(Those figures would be insane if they were millions. But I checked multiple sources: it is indeed billions. Those figures are beyond insane.)

How to Be Right (in a world gone wrong) by James O’Brien (Penguin, 2018) was an antidote to all this monstrous injustice. It’s extremely funny and somehow heartening.

‘The hardest thing about loving someone so broken…’

But my favourite book from Dublin is Notes from a Public Typewriter, edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti (Scribe, 2019). It’s a joy.

The owner of an Ann Arbor bookshop called Literati put his father’s old typewriter on a desk in the shop with a sheaf of paper beside it. Customers would sit down and type.

As he observes, ‘…writing isn’t limited to bestselling authors. Each of us has a note to leave behind … Inside our store, surrounded by books that have been labored over by authors, editors, and marketers, there’s a way for people to publish directly into the world in permanent ink – spelling errors and all.’ (p. 16)

Some ‘notes left behind’, typed in that quiet bookshop in Ann Arbor follow. They include contemplative and philosophical offerings, such as:


‘I’m scared I’ll spend half my life deciding what to do with it and the other half regretting that choice.’


‘I’m pregnant with my first child. 40 years old and I feel life is just beginning. Hello.’


‘Maybe we were brought here

to explore other worlds.

Reading allows us to do so.’


And I liked this for its contemplative nature and for it being a succinct expression of one of the many limitations of our NeoLiberal times:


‘Next time you are driving

on a bridge or flying on a plane

remember that it was built by

the lowest bidder.’


Some are humorous. The one above could be construed as such, albeit gallows humour, but others bring a sweeter smile to the lips:


‘We had a date night and

chose to come to Literati.

Please do not tell our children

We came here without them’


‘Avoid identity theft. Use a typewriter.

They are much harder to hack.’


‘Before spellcheck, there was spelling.’


Some are poignant, expressing depths of loneliness and longing. These indicate the need in our society for more avenues for self-expression, and of a different mood from the usual scope for that offered by social media.


‘I’m the

best book ever written.

And most of

the people I’ve loved

just can’t



‘I ended up alone on my birthday, but being here makes it easy to forget that. Thank you.’


‘she needs help.

I really want to help her.

But I don’t know how.’


‘I know I’m leaving

but I will never leave you.’


Many are deeply personal:


‘Dear –, I love you and I hope one day we can talk about things when we are sober.’


‘The hardest thing about loving someone so broken is you might fall to pieces yourself.’


‘I am 7 months sober today.

I’m finally learning

how to forgive. Not only those

who hurt me, but myself.’


Other offerings are enigmatic, like:


‘I am a typewriter in the streets

but a laptop in the sheets.’


And some whimsical:


‘bell peppers with fig jam

are better than expected.

Don’t be scared.’


The Uninhabitable Earth

I also bought David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: A story of the future, a concept made daily more comprehensible in Australia right now, and for an alternative to the values of greed and inequality that could have prevented this, The Inner Level: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s well-being by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

To tell you the truth, I haven’t finished these two. Had I but world enough and time … but I am supposed to be writing, (a non-fiction essay plus two pieces of fiction), as well as reading, and I’ve crossed off most of a list of To Do’s before Christmas, and want to post one more blog before this year runs its course.

I just wanted to turn straight back to page one and start it again – Andrea Goldsmith’s Invented Lives

Charlotte Wood has written often about literature being a force for good in this embattled world of ours – see

and I think, like the bookshop owner in Ann Arbor, that any writing is something positive (except of course for books or social media posts full of hatred and bigotry), that we don’t have to be best-selling authors or even to make a living at it.

Pick up a pen or poise your fingers on typewriter keys or above a keyboard, and write a haiku or a zine, write a letter thanking someone or pencil a list of things that make life worth living.

Or read something absorbing and uplifting, with the perfect ending (the hardest thing to write – haven’t you noticed too that in films, TV, novels and short stories, the weakest bit is always the ending?) like Andrea Goldsmith’s new novel, Invented Lives (Scribe, 2019) about migration and exile, secrets and love. I wanted to prolong this novel because I was enjoying it so much but simultaneously I wanted to read fast, impatient to see what would happen.

When I finished I was filled with a happy, satisfied glow and I just wanted to turn straight back to page one and start this captivating novel again. I think you should go to the bookshop right now or go online and buy it, and maybe start reading it while trying a slice or two of bell peppers (I think for us Ozzies, that’s capsicum) with fig jam. – He or she is right – yum!



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