Sometimes I think of myself as a book addict. At the library, I am like a kid in a candy shop. I go to pick up one particular book I have reserved, and I walk out staggering under kilos of volumes that I simply cannot resist. No matter how sternly I remind myself that I will have to carry them home and back again, that my bedside table is already groaning under a weight of books it will take me weeks to get through, I leave with more books than I intended. It’s as though something in me fears that when I come back next fortnight, all the books I want will have disappeared, and I need to grab them now. One of the most luxurious, bountiful and delicious things in the world is my awareness that I will never run out of wonderful things to read.
Not just an addict; I’m a chain reader too. Chain smokers light up a fresh (if you can use that word in relation to tobacco) cigarette with the fag end of their last; I put one book down and search desperately for what my next indulgence can be.
Last night, however, I finished a book and felt so soulful, so humbled, so utterly absorbed in the world of the story that I had to simply go to bed and lie quietly till sleep claimed me. It would have felt blasphemous to do anything else.
All that I am by Australian author Anna Funder has rightly been lauded as a masterpiece. It tells the story – new to me – of a small group of Germans between the world wars who could see what would happen if the Nazis came to power and tried to stop them. In the 1930s they were forced to flee to England, where they continued to try and raise awareness of the threat Hitler posed to the whole civilized world. They took great risks to do so and were largely ignored. With the benefit of hindsight, it is a heartbreaking read, reminding me of how subtle and insidious evil can be.
It is fiction; loosely based on real characters but largely invented by Funder herself. It brings to life the stories of two of the women in the Resistance, although it was their men who craved and received the limelight. As well as the narrative of those tumultuous and terrifying times, there is an intimate story of friends and lovers, trust and betrayal. It is a novel with everything.
I couldn’t resist scribbling down quotes from All that I am. Here is one:
‘The girl sits down at the table, side-on to me. Clara Bergdorf has been working with me for five weeks. She is a rare soul, with whom silences of whole minutes are calm. The time is neither empty, nor full of anticipatory pressure. It expands. It makes room for things to return, to fill my empty heart.’
Or how about this:
‘People often have to be alone to think or write, but being with Dora wasn’t like being with another person. We rarely made eye contact. I orbited her chair, eyed without seeing how her hair was cut soft into her nape, the gloss of it. To be with Dora was to be relieved of the burden of my self. This is the trick of creative work: it requires a slip-state of being, not unlike love. A state in which you are both most yourself and most alive and yet least sure of your own boundaries, and therefore open to everything and everyone outside of you. The two of us threw ideas and words around until we had carved a new way forward for the world – clearer and surer and nobler than had ever been done before. Then, elated, we went to bed, whatever the time of day.’
Funder’s novel reminded me of one reason I value reading – because it takes me into another’s head and heart, another’s world. The past is another country, another country is another country, every other person on the planet is a foreign planet to me, and there’s only one way I can visit. I would argue that reading a sensitively written book is as every bit as effective a way of broadening ones mind and heart as travel, not to mention less expensive and productive of greenhouse gases.
Reading about the terrors and restrictions of Germany as the Nazis took control made me treasure the freedoms we so often take for granted and resolve to defend those freedoms should they be threatened. It also revealed parallels between that situation and our own - boatloads of refugees from the Nazis were callously turned away from America, pretty much as happens in Australia today.
Reading with an open heart is a fast track to compassion, which is the virtue I crave above all others. I can’t put this better than Funder herself, and here is one last, my favourite quote:
‘Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any.’