Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Good Reader (Netherlands)

The Dutch translation of The Art of Reading will be published in late November in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Here's an early peek at the cover: a striking blue version of the local edition. They've also changed the title to The Good Reader, which is more faithful to my approach.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stupid Idiots

'The Orator', Ferdinand Hodler (1912)
I've an essay in the new Island magazine, 'Stupid Idiots'. It's on Australia's political slurs, and how unambitious they are.

I'm suggesting we try harder to insult one another, starting with these two recommendations: 'stupid' and 'idiot'. A sample:
Of all the disappointments falling from the low-hanging piƱata of Australian politics, the most banal are the insults. From the snarling sexism of ‘ditch the witch’—it rhymes, so it must be true and clever—to the clumsy class analysis of ‘spiv’, we are making a graveyard of slurs. Mark Latham offered the occasional zinger-like ‘conga line of suckholes’, but his recent diatribes are less like witty ripostes and more like midnight texts from a jilted lover after major surgery. 
Putting aside the political professionals and pundits, more disillusioning are the average fusillades from social media and casual conversation. Not sad because they are mean (see what I did there?), but because their standards are so low. Wanker, moron, fuckwit, loser – the epithets often express contempt and little else. 
The point is not that contempt is inappropriate – it takes a cruel bastard, for example, to endorse indefinite detention of children – but that it is inarticulate. It turns political debate into a stalemated contest of equally intense and unpersuasive smears. Perhaps this is apt, working well with a democracy that is becoming, as philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis put it, ‘a society of lobbies and hobbies’: competing special interest consortiums, and privative individuals. 
Nonetheless, the misery of things is no mandate for giving up. My humble contribution here is to offer a couple of choice political insults, together with an explanation of their worth. If not for immediate circulation as slights, then at least as a small investment in an ongoing debate between people who are not manic ideologues or venal parasites.
You can pick up Island in all good bookshops, or subscribe here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

'Sorry, I can't' (Meanjin)

Illustration by Lily Mae Martin
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Four Quarters'.

It's a collaboration with artist Lily Mae Martin, which looks at failure: parental, artistic, bodily, existential.

A sample, from the passages on the body:
‘Shit, do that again.’ The doctor prods my neck bulge, and my arm burns: down my elbow, to my forearm and fingers. Pinky and ring finger tingle. Physiological ventriloquism, and I am dummy and audience. ‘Mr Young, this is serious.’ Possible paralysis, she says. Possible quadriplegia, she says. Days later, the registrar adds more detail: ‘If the disc ruptures completely, the vertebrae will grind against each other.’ Bruised spinal cord. Bruised nerves. ‘You have already lost strength in that hand,’ he says, two fingers squeezed in my palm. 
Strength was familiar: the mass I threw around, in the playground at five, to the judo school at thirty. After my son was born, I took up the martial art at nights, pinning and cartwheeling on three hours’ sleep. My falls were clumsy. When I tell the stories, it seems like an epic throw damaged my spine. But the truth is: it might have been months of forward rolls—or decades hunched over books, like TS Eliot at Lloyd’s Bank, ‘stooping, very like a dark bird in a feeder’. Either way, I will never quite recover. 
But recover what? The easy languor of falling asleep on my back, every limb cushioned. The comforting force of my oldest friend’s arm, hugging my neck. The gentle fit of my baby son to my forearm. (‘Mr Young, don’t lift anything over three kilograms.’ Nikos was 3.65kg at birth.) 
For a while, I cannot type without voice recognition software. I’m writing my debut book. My head perfectly still, I talk at the old laptop, elevated on balsawood IKEA drawers. ‘Alienation’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘ALIENATION’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘FUCKING ALIENATION.’ Truck in violin nation. What the nerve damage begins, the Ibuprofen ends. My mind is slower, more vague. And so is my manuscript.  
It is psychologically neat to say ‘my neck is damaged’. But existentially, things are messier: I am damaged. Parts of my psyche are caring, dutiful, sensitive and exciting—but they are at odds with the parts that are selfish through fear, weak after sleeplessness, anaesthetised by pain, and dull because of drugs. I am not what I was, and certainly not what I hoped to be. 
Eventually I can travel, and I take the bus and tram to the university. A teenager in a purple choker nods her head to Kanye’s “Gold Digger”, and I wince with each thud. The bus bounces over potholes in Richmond, and I do the same. Toward the end of my route, a young mother with a pram stumbles as the tram stops, then rushes to get her baby off onto the platform. There is a drop from the tram’s step to the concrete, and she asks me to help her by taking one end of the pram. 
I say ‘sorry, I can’t’. And I recognise the look of astonished contempt in her tired eyes: this is how I feel about myself.
You can pick up Meanjin online or from bookshops. My advice is to subscribe.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mininature superheroes (and villains) at All-Star Comics

Quizzing, reading, drawing (the dinosaur didn't bite once)
Yesterday I took My Sister is a Superhero to Melbourne's Eisner award-winning comics shop, All-Star Comics.

They were launching their Kids Club, and the Queen Street shop was packed with tiny heroes and villains. There was face-painting, show-bags and guest writers (including Ned Collett, creator of Fabulous Tree Frog).

I began with a quick quiz ("Does Spiderman wear a cape?"), gave a drawing demonstration, then launched into a reading. The kids drew sketched some fantastic crime-fighting sisters, and yelled "SUPERHERO!" with verve.

A great morning of high geekery.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sydney Writers Festival 2016

Jane Gleeson-White, putting up with me, with characteristic grace
I just returned from another enormous Sydney Writers Festival.

This year I didn't host the 'Curiosity' series -- they had a posse of custodians to do this. Instead, my gigs were chiefly about The Art of Reading.

My first event on Thursday was a talk at the State Library of New South Wales. I discussed the genesis of The Art of Reading, did a quick reading from the chapter on patience -- 'Boredom at Buckingham Palace' -- then gave a brief overview of other chapters.

In ur library talking to ur readers
Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss
all the heavenly glory
We ran out of time for questions, but folks had some corkers during the signing.

That afternoon I finished Maggie Nelson's exceptional The Argonauts. Memoir, but also a careful study of gender, love, parenthood--and the language with which we speak these. It stands on the cliff's edge of the sayable--and what a view. Brilliant.

Next on Friday morning was my sold-out Art of Reading Q and A with Jane Gleeson-White, who ran the conversation beautifully. We chatted about my literary childhood and cravings for Star Trek novels, the literary surfeit of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and more. Jane also asked about the very Englishness of my personal canon -- this is true, and something I hope to remedy. Thanks, Jane, for a great chat.

Reading aloud and talking too much with Jane
Audience questions touched on: reading as a conversation; my parents' library and what they offered the young Damon; my own children, and how freely they roam in my library; and the importance of Batman (more here).

I was on the signing table next to Julian Barnes, which prompted the realisation that our sessions were on simultaneously. WHY DID YOU COME TO MINE, SYDNEY? (But seriously: chuffed by all the goodwill.)

After a short break, I bumbled off to Science House to teach my three-hour 'Everyday Philosophy' workshop (which was also booked out, I think). We discussed some basic ideas of philosophy from David Hume, Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey and others, then analysed some short texts from Seneca, Nietzsche and Alison Croggon.

Philosophy in action
Then I was briefly back to Pier One, then off to the airport to eat dubious sushi and have Call of Duty tarmac flashbacks.

Because of my short stay, I didn't get to see any other sessions, but I did at least catch up with some old festival mates, and meet some new ones. One of the highlights of every SWF is the behind-the-scenes conversations. Not just the book trade stuff (although that's always illuminating), but also the literary ideas and general observations. Writers do good talk. Cheers to John Birmingham, Kate Tempest, Kate Forsyth, PJ Vogt, Petina Gappah, David Henley, Marie Darrieussecq and Ashley Hay for their company.

Congratulations to Jemma Birrell and the SWF gang for another great year. Thanks, once again, for making me feel so welcome.

Sydney, you smouldering sexy thing

Monday, May 16, 2016

From Star Trek to Schopenhauer...

I was profiled by the The Age Sydney Morning Herald this weekend.

In 'Damon Young: From Star Trek to Schopenhauer, with love and enthusiasm', Jane Sullivan discusses my childhood, authorial motives, and more. A sample:
Some of his inspiration is autobiographical. Young clearly owes a lot to his father, a psychologist, and his mother, a teacher and musician. They introduced him to reading: "They'd go through books and change the American spelling and words to English. They expected me to figure it out, and that if I wasn't old enough I wouldn't understand the sex and violence. There were so many books, just like food. Kids snack, and I think I read like that." He lies down on his chair to imitate his son Nikos on the couch, the way he picks up one book after another and devours it. 
Young taught himself to read with the Asterix comics, which his parents refused to read to him because it was too hard to do the speech bubbles. When he was 11, Sherlock Holmes loomed huge in his psyche: "He was sort of debonair in a weird, crusty, drug-addled way. He had an extremely charismatic mind combined with social distance and awkwardness. That left me proud of what my own mind could do. And it was then that I felt I'm a reader, I'm in charge, I'm responsible for bringing this into existence." 
A little later, his hero was Batman in the DC comics, a figure he still reveres. "It was the classic teenage power fantasy, but it was also that sense of being psychologically broken in some way. The best thing to do was to take all these extreme impulses and sublimate them, make them beautiful. You're not going to be well-integrated and happy, but you can give your life precision, take care of yourself. You can have style." 
All of which suggests that when young Damon felt isolated and unhappy, he sought consolation in the heroes of his reading. This was why he became a philosopher, he says. "There was social estrangement and awkwardness, and bafflement at the world. I felt at a distance from ordinary life, not knowing what it was all about and where I fitted in."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fitzroy Library talk (and parachutes)

Bald white men, talking again
Last week, at the Fitzroy Town Hall reading room, I had a chat to ABC presenter and Meanjin editor Jonathan Green about The Art of Reading.

It was a wide-ranging discussion, with some good questions afterwards (e.g. whether my ideas apply to television and film, and whether you can read too much).

But one of my highlights was the sight of Nikos and Sophia, before the gig, playing with a toy parachuting soldier. The evening light, the shouts of awe, the rhythm of the throw and fall--parenting done briefly right.

What goes up... (But it's still a thrill when it descends.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

This exotic was wilting

The latest New Philosopher magazine is out now, with work from Will Self, Roslyn Arnold, Jane Roland Martin, Oliver Burkeman, Tom Chatfield, Patrick Stokes, Matthew Beard, Nigel Warburton and others.

The topic: education.

My essay, 'Orwell and lamingtons', explores parents as teachers. I discuss how I try to broaden my children's education, by introducing questions of value; by highlighting the ties between human flourishing and mortality; and by recognising the edges of my own knowledge. A sample:
It is...vital to confront the limits of my own judgement. In 1819, thirteen year old John Stuart Mill was studying an advanced course in political economy—with famed economist David Ricardo. The boy had already read the classics of philosophy and literature, and translated passages into English. His father, Scottish polymath James Mill, educated him in Greek and Latin years earlier. James took John Stuart on peripatetic strolls: they chatted about the boy’s history studies while wandering. ‘With my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers,’ he wrote, ‘is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before’. It is a vision of young Mill as a thriving orchid, growing strong and handsome in its expensive, expertly-built hothouse.
But in less than a decade, this exotic was wilting. Mill was busy: labouring for the British East India Company, writing for Radical newspaper, The Westminster Review. But he was chronically depressed. He worked, but without joy or even drive. Even his favourite authors left him numb. He suffered what he later called, drawing on Coleridge’s poetry, a ‘drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief’. A young man of fantastic intellect and learning was dulled to it all.  
In his memoirs, Mill reflected that this malaise was partly educational. His father’s Benthamite utilitarianism, alongside the James’ stoic bent, left young John Stuart fixated on the wrong things. Instead of devoting himself to good works, and the cultivation of his emotions and fancies, he was committed to the calculation of happiness. Mill argued that this dogged scrutiny cut the ties between things and pleasures, making joys seem artificial. He also concluded that chasing happiness personally was a fool’s quest. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,’ he wrote, ‘and you cease to be so.’ He believed that literature, like Marmontel’s memoirs and the poetry of Wordsworth, awakened his sympathy with others, and encouraged the commonwealth of feeling lost to ‘analytic habits’. 
This is no snarky rejection of James Mill’s parenting. John Stuart was a prodigy, and it is a testament to his father’s generosity, patience and drive that the young man was able to remedy his own psychological ailments. He was educated to educate himself. This is also no libel against utilitarianism as a broad ethical theory, though it certainly revealed the blinkers on Bentham’s outlook. 
Mill’s depression and recovery is, first, a telling example of philosophical reflection, applied to itself: calculative rationality discovering its own limits. But it is also an epistemological point: what seemed a straightforward success at thirteen, was a more ambiguous achievement at twenty. 
(Photo: John Stuart Mill, Sophus Williams, Library of Congress)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Brisbane launches: The Art of Reading and My Sister is a Superhero

On Tuesday I tripped up to Queensland for some more muggy literary adventures.

Tuesday night was the Brisbane launch of The Art of Reading, at West End's glorious Avid Reader bookshop.
A great crowd, made sublime by Ashley Hay's
cookie monster t-shirt
A fantastic crowd joined me and Radio National's Sarah Kanowski to talk about everything from 'beer fiction' (like my Star Trek binge) to Batman, Austen to AJ Ayer.

Earnest philosopher face
The conversation is now online at Radio National's Books and Arts.

After the chat, I signed some books, then headed out to dinner at the Chop Chop Chang's.

Defacing products
Big thanks to Avid Reader, especially events mage Krissy Kneen and co-owner Fiona Stager, and to Sarah Kanowski for taking the time to read and talk so generously. Thanks also to Melbourne University Publishing.


The next day, after a quick trip to the Queensland Art Gallery, I launched My Sister is a Superhero at Where the Wild Things Are, Avid Reader's little sister shop.

I was joined by my illustrator extraordinaire, Peter Carnavas. There were dress-ups, cupcakes, quizzes, prizes and, of course, a spirited reading.

Iron Fist uses his powers to somehow read in that mask
Iron Fist watching Plaid-Man uses his drawing superpowers
Thanks to a great audience of superheroes and their parents, and to Where the Wild Things Are and the University of Queensland Press.

Secular Sermon: On Reading

At Deakin Edge (I'm the light blue speck in the middle)
On Sunday 17th April, I delivered a 'secular sermon' on reading at Federation Square's Deakin Edge theatre.

Hosted by The School of Life, the morning began with music from Angie Hart, including the beautiful 'Little Bridges'.

Drawing on The Art of Reading, I then spoke about my history of reading, the current spotlight on writing and writers, and the reader's power and virtues.

As always, more philosophical hand waving
An edited extract from the talk will hopefully be available soon.