Literature that Nourishes the Soul

Books matter a great deal to me, both professionally and personally. There was a time when I wasn’t prioritising reading in my life as much as I knew I valued it so I started to treat reading like exercise and built it into my routine. That discipline also encompassed reading broadly, not just political histories and policy tomes, but literature that nourishes the soul in some way. The books that I come back to and reread are those that give me that sense of nourishment and a sense of purpose.

The book that I dive into most often is All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the first poet laureate of the United States, a southerner and a gorgeous writer. All the King’s Men is his greatest novel, a thinly veiled fictionalisation of the life of Huey Long, the Governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression. I keep picking it up because it’s not really a book about politics, it’s a book about people. Politics, of course, is an extension of people and the glorious idealism, compromises, triumphs and corruptions of politics reflect those same things in human nature. Reading passages from the book, where the protagonists, Willie Stark and Jack Burden, grapple with the inherent trade-offs of politics, the ends-justifies-the-means trade-offs, the trade-offs required to achieve things in the world at a personal cost, the cost to your own soul and your own principles, whether those trade-offs are worthwhile and where those lines are drawn…I find to be really gripping.

Plus, as a southern writer in the early 20th century, the prose is beautiful, as the quote below from an argument between Willie and his advisor Jack Burden demonstrates:

“What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that-”
“Yeah,” I said, “I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ‘em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ‘em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ‘em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ‘em, and haven’t been alive in twenty years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won’t set on their stomachs, and they don’t believe in god, so it’s up to you to give ‘em something to stir ‘em up and make ‘em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.”

And this, the classic passage about Willie Stark using political dirt to smear his enemies and achieve his ends.

“Dirt’s a funny thing. Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.”

The other book I frequently pick up is Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. The writer was a Jewish chemist who became a novelist and journalist in Soviet Russia. He volunteered for the Soviet army and was at Stalingrad, Treblinka, the defence of Moscow and the fall of Berlin. He was a prominent Jewish intellectual during the Great Terror and lost his mother to the Holocaust in Ukraine. He was at ground zero of some of the century’s most defining events.

Life and Fate is a book he wrote in conscious tribute to War and Peace. He read War and Peace while sitting in an apartment complex under siege in Stalingrad and with similar scope Life and Fate spans the entire vista of the Second World War. There are scenes of a paranoid Hitler walking in the forest, scenes of the gas chambers, Moscow families, of Soviet prison camps, of German prison camps, villagers in shtetels, scenes with Stalin and of dying soldiers. It encompasses the entirety of human experience during this calamitous period and then settles down into an almost mundane philosophy that you can never put ideas before people; that it is individual peculiarities that are the only thing worth fighting for and preserving. It’s an extraordinarily humanist book. Like most of the Russian greats it’s incredibly long and difficult to follow, with hundreds of characters each with three patronyms!

There’s a particular scene that has stayed with me and grown in my mind well after reading it. One of the characters, a middle-aged woman who has never had a family, is in a cattle car on the way to Treblinka and while waiting to go into the gas chamber she sees an unaccompanied child. She takes the boy’s hand and holds it as they walk toward their death. The last thought of hers that we’re left with is ‘Now I am a mother’. There are many small moments like this in the book…it’s an amazing piece of literature.

Tragically he never saw it published. When he showed the manuscript to the soviet authorities it was ‘arrested’ and he was told it couldn’t be published for two hundred years! Thankfully a draft manuscript was smuggled out in the 1980s and it’s become widely known after the success of Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, which relied extensively on Grossman’s reporting.

My secular bible, of which I own many copies, is George Orwell’s Essays. Each essay is incredible but I assign ‘Politics and the English Language’ to everyone in my office as required reading before they’re allowed to write for me. It’s an essay that’s just as resonant today as when Orwell wrote it in the 1940’s. The great thing about Orwell’s essays is that they cover so many experiences, from making a cup of tea, to second hand bookshops, to Tolstoy’s feud with Shakespeare, the correct way to fight communism, the role of the arts in politics, extraordinary first hand writing about colonialism – shooting an elephant as a colonial police officer and a hanging in Burma which is still the seminal piece of writing in opposition to the death penalty.

For almost any topic you can imagine, Orwell has already written about it but more than that, he’s already been right about it.

Of the Australian writers, I think Richard Flanagan is incredible. The Narrow Road To The Deep North is going to be one of those books that we’ll be reading fifty years from now, particularly for its significance regarding our role in the region but also as a standalone piece of literature. Flanagan is the kind of writer you can ease into like a warm bath such is the luxurious language. I also like how it’s overtly parochial. You know you’re reading an Australian writer, Booker Prize winner or not, who is highly evocative of the Australian identity.

The best book I’ve read by a contemporary author recently is This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, a Dominican American writer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao but This Is How You Lose Her, his follow up book, is even better. It has a very male perspective, but that’s okay in small doses.

Those are just some of the many books that I return to, especially when I’m feeling isolated in Canberra or when I need a bit of nourishment of the soul and personal course correction through literature.