Books That Saved my Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure
By Michael McGirr, Published by Text, 2019, 320pps.
Reviewed by Moira McAlister, October 2020
I’ve read some books by Michael McGirr- Bypass, Things You Get for Free and always find his writing refreshing. He is a well-respected reviewer of books, counting over a thousand book reviews to his name. A former Jesuit of twenty years, seven of them as a priest, and now father of three, husband and teacher at St Kevin’s Jesuit school in Melbourne, McGirr is easy to read -deep, reflective, funny and perceptive. This book is McGirr at his best.
There are forty titles covered here and each one is given five-six pages – enough to reach some depth, but not enough to become dull or boring. This book could be considered a memoir, I guess; it is McGirr’s reflection, not only on the book, its contents, the beauty of its language, its authors life and personality, sometimes its prompts to writing, but also it is his reflection on his own life; where he was when he read the book, people whom he associates with the book, often the place or circumstance in which he bought or acquired the book. It is a book of friends; each one of the forty books has a place in his life with its own special memories. It is a very personal book, but at the same time McGirr invites the reader into this personal space. McGirr, always the teacher, brings these books alive and his tantalizing treatment of each book had me wanting to read or reread every one of the forty -from Middlemarch to Herodotus.
There were many memorable moments in this book; McGirr’s description of Herman Melville’s boring job as a custom’s clerk in New York (p196), Mary Gilmore watching Auburn St in Goulburn and Oxford St in Sydney from a first floor window, ‘slightly above the sod, but not in the clouds’, (p 138) or Leo Tolstoy ‘at no time in his life would it have been much fun to know him.’ (p182). Or some other observations; ‘Literature offers an experience of a broader world; one we can learn from but not control.’(p4), ‘(Tim Winton’s) concern about the vacant moral centre of the community he is part of’ (p30), and my favourite; Orwell says ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.’(p146)
The problem with this book is that each essay is engrossing and can be read again and again, so it is vital to have your own copy. If you love a book you can ‘dip into’ repeatedly then it’s certainly worth the investment.