Twelve Texts That Remind Me How Much I Love Language

by Bec Hawkings

One in Japanese, one in French, one in German, nine in English (or variations thereof). All astonishingly beautiful examples of language. All, unsurprisingly, texts that I tend to shove at my nearest and dearest with demands that they read it RIGHT THIS MINUTE lest they face my wrath and judgement. (My nearest and dearest are very patient beings when it comes to my bibliophilic tendencies.)


Tim Winton, Cloudstreet

Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.

The book I’ve read well over a thousand times. The book from which I derived one of my tattoos (“strangeness is ordinary”). The book that still makes me breathless each time I (re)read it.

Stephen King, On Writing

kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings

Writing about writing – and, indeed, reading about writing – is one of the many ways writers procrastinate from doing the thing they’re supposed to be doing (word on paper, followed by another, repeat until finished, edit, rewrite, existential crisis, publish). King’s tome on the art (or slog) of writing is the only one worth reading.

Nam Le, The Boat

“The thing is not to write what no one else has written but to write what only you could have written.” I found this fragment in my old notebooks. The person who wrote that couldn’t have known what would happen: how a voice hollows, how words you once loved can wither on a page.

I read this book and became furious at my own inability to write short stories. Or any type of fiction. Beautiful, fragile, snapshots of culture without the appropriation.

Elspeth Probyn, Blush: Faces of Shame

Moments of shame: an email arrives from a respected colleague. She’s angry at a newspaper column I’ve written. She writes: “Loyalty? Shame? Irony?”In front of my computer and a hemisphere away from her, I blush. Thoughts of denial flit across my mind but are pushed away by the visceral feeling of having done wrong. What can I say but that I’m sorry? It seems such a paltry word compared with the shame that covers me. And I don’t say it. Or at least not immediately. I waffle in reply about how I shouldn’t think out loud in print.

Lent to me by a friend and colleague with the disclaimer: “This book changed my academic life.” Astoundingly, it lived up to its promise. Probyn made me rethink my entire academic existence, in the best of ways, and I am grateful for it.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, 
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

When I was twelve years old, my parents gave my the Collected Works of Shakespeare for Xmas. I devoured them over the summer holidays, and so began a lifelong obsession. Shakespeare is the peerless master, and Caliban’s Speech (above) is the most beautiful passage ever written in the English language. (The first line of which I have also fashioned into another of my tattoos, to my mother’s displeasure / confusion / loving acceptance.) 

Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, and it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

I run – shuffle/jog, really – in large part because of this book. This book is a case study, a memoir, and an examination of the physiology / sociology / psychology / evolutionary biology of humans who run. We are, in short, all mad here.

Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?

The text that holds the title of Only Book To Have Produced A Violent, Visceral Response In The Reader. (I vomited.) The most convincing anti-war novel ever to have been written, and one that still haunts me. A must-read.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Mr. Mooney presents his compliments to Professor Snape and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.
Mr. Prongs agrees with Mr. Mooney and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git.
Mr. Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a Professor.
Mr. Wormtail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slime-ball.

To leave Jo Rowling off of this list would be to deny much of my childhood and teenage years. When I read the third in the series,  it was like a hand reaching out, reminding me that (despite teenage angst and a rather stormy psyche) I was not alone. She is – unequivocally – the greatest storyteller of the twenty-first century.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.

I was raised in a household obsessed with design and architecture. Crammed into our family bookshelves are texts on modernism and Phillipe Starck and the role of Cubism on German design tropes. Tanizaki is the master.

David Christian, Maps of Time

I intend this book to contribute to the larger project of constructing a more unified vision of history and of knowledge in general. I am well aware of the difficulties of that project. But I am sure it is both doable and important, so it is worth attempting in the hope that others may eventually do better. I am also convinced that a modern creation myth will turn out to be as rich and as beautiful as the creation myths of all earlier communities; it is a story worth telling even if the telling is imperfect.

A first year undergraduate history course introduced me to the work of David Christian – former Soviet historian turned creator of the Next Big School of modern historiography and resident Big History expert at Macquarie Uni’s Dept. of Modern History. My department. I still get a slight thrill out of that.

Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

What a blight that woman is. Do you happen to know why? I suspect a malignant fairy at her christening.

Given the lateness of the hour, I vowed to only read the first few pages. Two hours later, the sun was beginning to rise and I was grinning maniacally with tears steaming down my face. A charming punch in the guts.

Michel Foucault, Order of Discourse

Ever since the sophists’ tricks and influence were excluded, and since their paradoxes have been more or less safely muzzled, it seems that Western thought has taken care to ensure that discourse should occupy the smallest possible space between thought and speech. Western thought seems to have made sure that the act of discoursing should appear to be no more than a certain bridging (support) between thinking and speaking – a thought dressed in its signs and made visible by means of words, or conversely the very structures of language put into action and producing a meaning-effect.

My aversion to Foucault was renowned and unchanging. Then I read this lecture – initially under duress, for a reading group, and then increasingly with delight. I am now a wholehearted convert (much to the amusement of my post-structuralist colleagues, who had born witness to my previous rants and ravings about the importance of linear or logical narratives.) Damn little Frenchman.