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Shape shifters

07 March 2011

Have you had to sit down and think about the events and people who have shaped your life? Those formative experiences that leave you knowing, well, there's no way I'm ever going to be the same again. And then there are all those wider global events and people outside our control whose influence on our lives might seem way more subtle but certainly no less affecting.

Just when I thought I'd like to wrap myself in cotton wool and pretend I don't have to deal with anything more complicated than what to cook for dinner, another possible schism of influence yawns open beneath my feet.

The books I've read. Because, thanks to the Sydney Writer's Festival and a talk by guest Rick Gekoski, author, academic, rare book trader and Man Booker literary prize judge, I am now aware that to some smaller or larger degree what I have read in my life and continue to read and reread may have more to do with who I am than I might first have thought possible.

Although this theory assumes I remember more than the title and the author. Which, in many cases, I don't because the reason to remember anything about a book became only about winning the brown pie in Trivial Pursuit and thus proving I was of a superior literary bent (as long as no one asked me the plot or characters or what it was meant to mean) and so, did not need maths or science or financial nous in my life.

The books Gekoski quotes as shape shifters for him run from Catcher in the Rye to Horton Hatches the Egg. Mine include science fiction and biographies, travel stories, social commentary, and all say something about my pragmatism rather than story telling ability. Gekoski is a consummate storyteller.

What makes something collectible? Is it the thing itself and if it's the content that interests you then why bother whether it is a rare version of that content or not. Or is collecting about being on a treasure hunt as Gekoski would have it. For him, the deal to get the books published, to track down the really worthwhile and rare editions and trade in them is an endlessly fascinating process and it sets him apart from his academic colleagues, many of who view his 'being in business' with disdain.

When he told us this I felt his colleagues were hypocritical. We are all in trade to some degree or another. Trading on our personalities, our skills and knowledge, on our images, marketability as individuals as commodities.

Controversially, Gekoski also pointed out that reading and writing might actually be bad for us. I would have no trouble warning a friend or family member off someone I did not think was a good influence or good for them. But I would not do the same for a piece of literature - wouldn't that be censorship? And yet how subtly might someone be influenced by an author? Nietzsche read by one person could be another man's poison. And then in the company of the writers among us: do you ever feel safe divulging your thoughts and secrets when they could so easily end up the staple of some character in a novel.

Controversy engages people and there are very few people who would not form an opinion if offered something juicy to think about.

Take this headline: The History of Beauty — a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge feature. Sounds like nothing, but wait, my friend, and read on... \"Fragrance, eyeliner, toothpaste—the beauty business has permeated our lives like few other industries. But surprisingly little is known about its history, which over time has been shrouded in competitive secrecy. HBS history professor Geoffrey Jones offers one of the first authoritative accounts in Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry.\"

Now you want to have a look. And why? Because when a thought is expressed in the dramatic way that controversy demands you'd be inhuman to just let it lie there and die. It's where the saying all publicity is good publicity gets its credence from.

So, try these articles for party starters:

\"A $95,000 question: why are whites five times richer than blacks in the US? Study finds gaping racial divide in household assets?Economic policies blamed for growing inequality\"

OR, this one

\"Lost Man Booker Prize longlist to award best omitted novel of 1970.

\"Any of 22 authors, including Iris Murdoch and Joe Orton, could be awarded the coveted Lost Man Booker prize for novels that missed out due to rule changes in 1971\"

OR, this one

\"Tampon-makers can't mention the V-word. Period.

\"An advertising campaign for tampons is rejected by US television networks for daring to include the word vagina\"

OR, closer to home on

\"Is bigger picture in art uproar that it's not Australian?\"

This year's Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes, especially the landscape prize won by Sam Leach, sure sparked its fair share of controversy. The argument I heard from certain individuals to explain why they felt the Wynne prize recipient was a controversial choice went something like this: if a painter entered a Dutch landscape prize with say Fred McCubbin's Lost (for example) minus the girl in the blue dress, calling it \"Searching for a Way Forward\", and did not acknowledge its origins in any way, should they win the prize?

OR, what about this incident at Guillaume at Bennelong where an extended family, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, all sat down to degustation matched with soft drinks. A sort of all you could eat for $180p/p - it got other patrons chatting.