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The Books that Changed Me: Australia’s thinkers and entertainers share the works that have shaped them

Read Monday, 15 Feb 2016

Ten of Australia’s best thinkers, storytellers and entertainers – Anna Funder, Kon Karapanagiotidis, Russel Howcroft, Susan Carland, Tony Windsor, Sarah Blasko, Lee Lin Chin, Jack Charles, Graeme Simsion and Nakkiah Lui – share the books that changed their thinking, turned them onto new ideas or even shifted the directions of their lives.

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Uncle Jack Charles:

‘Books have stood me in good stead, says Jack Charles. ‘I was raised up with the Salvation Army, so I was impressed with the Bible. In undertaking my journey as a leader in my community, I took a great stock of the “original JC” … I knew I had to turn the other cheek. Still, says Charles, The book that would most impress me would be the book that I haven’t written yet. I would like to write a book – its title: The Big Black Book of Little Jack Charles: A Born-Again Blackfella.’

Jack Charles is an actor, musician, potter and Koori elder.

Anna Funder:

Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children changed Anna Funder ‘because I saw how literature might liberate you … Stead gave us the intimate view of everyone. She did it because she’s a genius … and she does it because she understands that that is what the novel is for.’

Anna Funder is the author of Stasiland. Her debut novel, All That I Am, won the 2012 Miles Franklin Award.

Russel Howcroft:

‘The book I’ve chosen is Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov … As a 16 year-old, I suppose Asimov had a profound effect [on me,] as the overriding theme of the day was the idea that humanity was not on the path to a better future. The MAD nuclear doctrine and the loss of jobs due to the rise of technology were dinner table conversations we had at the Howcroft household. For me, Asimov made it clear that humanity is not so stupid; that despite having the capacity to destroy itself, this will not happen. Sanity will prevail.’

Russel Howcroft is a well-regarded public face of brand marketing and advertising in Australia, and a regular on ABC1’s The Gruen Transfer.  

Susan Carland:

‘I don’t remember the first time I read [Victor Hugo’s] Les Miserables, but what I do remember is how deeply a particular scene in the book affected me. It’s an exchange between two characters that was so unexpected and such an example of how someone can exemplify audacious grace, that I couldn’t stop turning it over in my head for days afterwards. Even now, I often reflect on that moment and what I can learn from it.’ In the scene, Jean Valjean steals silverware from a kindly bishop. When Valjean is apprehended and brought back to the bishop, the bishop lies, telling the men that that the silverware was a gift he gave to Valjean, and that the thief should be freed. ‘So much of the way that we deal with each other is about revenge … it’s about knee-jerk responses and reminding people who’s the boss … We live in a time when very few of our heroes are remarkable for their audacious grace. Rarely do they exemplify a better way of living – a better way of being – for us to look up to.’

Susan Carland is a lecturer and researcher at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies.

Graeme Simsion:

‘I’ve read a lot of books. Books have educated me, they’ve inspired me, I’ve written a couple of them … but the book that changed my life, that plucked a 42-year-old business manager running an information technology consultancy who had never written a word of fiction except under duress at school, and catapulted me to where I am standing, gobsmacked beyond my wildest dreams … that book was Joe Queenan’s The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7000 Movie and Put It All On His Credit Card. I finished reading this book, I turned to my wife, and I had a Homer Simpson/Fred Flintstone sort of moment and I said, “We’ve got to do this! We’ve gotta make our own movie!” And she said, “What do you mean? This guy spent almost $50,000, almost destroyed his marriage, and the film was a turkey – what are you thinking?”’

After reading the book, Simsion decided to drop everything and make a movie anyway. The self-financed project – which eventually ended up costing around $50,000, and featured Simsion as the male romantic lead – didn’t turn into a blockbuster, but it did send Simsion on the path toward a ‘completely new life’ as a writer … which eventually resulted in the runaway success of his first published novel, The Rosie Project.

Graeme Simsion is the author of The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Effectand the forthcoming The Best of Adam Sharp.

Lee Lin Chin:

Lee Lin Chin’s ‘terminal attachment to the world of literature’ began with worshipping her teachers, and the world inside many books. ‘I was half-conscious of entering a solitary world where one communed very intimately with people, and their worlds.’ She recalls her love of opening lines, Agatha Christie and modernism – but it was William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that really set her love of books alight. ‘I had found not a book, but a writer, to whom my devotion became complete.’

Lee Lin Chin is best known as presenter of SBS World News, but has found a new following thanks to a series of appearances on SBS 2’s The Feed.

Nakkiah Lui:

‘When I read this … my heart started beating too hard, and I dropped the book,’ says Nakkiah Lui of the play Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). ‘It scared me, because I know what it’s like to hate. I know what it feels like to feel desperate … Dutchman changed my life, because I thought I had it all figured out. That empathy and stories could change the world … but it’s so much more complicated than that. Dutchman made me realise that I would trade all my work – to have my grandmother back. I’d trade it back in an instant.’

Nakkiah Lui is a co-writer and star of Black Comedy on ABC TV and a Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman.

Tony Windsor:

Tony Windsor’s choice? Mila 18, by Leon Uris. ‘It brought home the atrocity of war. It brought home the way in which propaganda is used to create fear within a population.’

Tony Windsor was the Independent Member for Tamworth in the NSW parliament for 10 years, and the Independent Member for New England in the federal parliament for 12 years.

Kon Karapanagiotidis:

Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr ‘didn’t just change my life, but kinda saved my life,’  says Karapanagiotidis, who came upon the book as a depressed, outcast 14 year old. ‘I felt so lost, and I was so desperate to fit in, and I kept asking myself: why are you making it so hard on yourself? I couldn’t fathom the idea that I wouldn’t experience love … What this book taught me is that the vulnerable is the most beautiful thing.’

Kon Karapanagiotidis is the founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Sarah Blasko:

The book that changed Sarah Blasko was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and its portrayal of ‘the dual life: the outward life that informs, and the inner life that questions’. ‘It’s a book that I read at a very particular time at my life, and it made a huge impact because of that timing,’ says Blasko. ‘There were so many things that felt painfully close to what was beneath the surface of my own life.’

Sarah Blasko is an acclaimed singer, songwriter and performer.

These quotes are excerpted from speeches made at the Gala Night of Storytelling 2016: The Book that Changed Me. Want to hear the speeches in full? Subscribe to the Wheeler Centre podcast.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.