Keeping it light

By Rhonda Dredge

Anna MacDonald works at the Paperback Bookshop at Bourke St and she’s published a book of essays called Between the Word and the World that deals with the concept of distance.

The book claims to be about walking and being-in-the-world but it is quite academic in style.

Place is mostly used by MacDonald to explore poetics rather than personal engagement.

To be fair, the book was published before the pandemic lockdown, when fewer people took walking as seriously as followers of Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire.

Now walking has become a creative activity for the majority as a means of both exercise and making precious social contact with others, both planned and casual. 

The book lacks what has kept many people going during a period dominated by screens – conversations with others while out on meanders. 

“Looking” is deemed more important, possibly because it connects in a more direct way with the aesthetics of reading. 

For the places in which MacDonald wanders most confidently are literary locations, including a Le Corbusier house with horizontal windows that restrict the inhabitants’ views of the sea and sky.

Even though the partial perspective and lack of clarity are confusing to the protagonist of OK, Mr Field, he finds they create room for fantasy. When he unscrews the windows and the wind blows in the glass he is more susceptible to the world, according to MacDonald.

This is a lovely metaphor that challenges the view of a human as a French-inspired flaneur, blithely collecting observations and impressions on the path through life, in favour of one being overwhelmed by it.

MacDonald, unsurprisingly given her profession, loves text and narrative and the claim at the beginning of the book that she is more in the world than the word is strange.

By the eighth essay she is writing about twists of fate and strange doublings, storytelling strategies and postmodern games as she examines the subjectivities of the protagonists from the books she has reviewed. 

Many ideas are explored, including some relevant to our current situation.

A protagonist from a short story in Southerly finds his conversations by Skype strangely empty and the moment he turns on his tablet he resents his own company.

By contrast, working with his hands to renovate his house “makes him feel real”.

An essay on The Lonely City provides a definition of being lonely as a desire for intimacy that is not fulfilled and in another on following the literary trail MacDonald castigates herself for not respecting the privacy of an author.

Books can fill this complex space between the company of people and the company of self and the views of this well-read bookseller are precious at a time like this.

Between the Word and the World is actually quite a dense book of literary criticism of work by Esther Kinsky, Katharine Kilalea and Olivia Laing, among others, that is presented in a light form •

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