Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Whenever he spoke on TV or at an event, an audience member would beg Carl Sagan just to say it, please! But his use of the phrase ‘Billions and billions’ was a misquotation, he insists early on in this collection of essays and articles. Ever the scientist, he’s sure he would never say something so vague or unspecific (what does it even mean? Four billion? Four hundred billion?). But like many other famous misquotations before him – ‘Play it again, Sam’; ‘Elementary my dear Watson’; ‘You dirty rat’ – it stuck. Probably because when he did use the word (in a more accurate context, of course) he made an effort to pronounce it with an “explosive” ‘b’, he says, so as not to confuse it with its poorer cousin, millions.

There’s an old joke, Sagan tells us, in which a lecturer explains that the sun is predicted to expand and consume the earth in around five billion years. A nervous audience member raises their hand and asks, ‘Excuse me, did you say the sun will burn up the earth in five billion years?’

‘More or less,’ replies the lecturer.

Phew,’ the audience member sighs with relief. ‘I thought for a minute you said five million years.’

Like it’d make any difference to us.

The content of this book is vast – it covers everything from climate change, to the nuclear arms race, abortion and finally Sagan’s own encounter with painful death as a result of a rare blood disease; myelodysplasia. His final essay is written from his hospital bed, followed by a heartbreaking, posthumous epilogue written by his wife that set my bottom lip trembling.

Each chapter could be read on its own and provides great conversation starters – but I relished (and therefore recommend) reading this cover to cover, especially if you’re new to Carl Sagan’s writing, as I was. It felt like an opportunity to get to know one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century after which his death at the end, while expected, arrived like a bit of a sucker punch. But it’s inspiring to think that his words and ideas are enduringly relevant and inspiring today as they were in the 80s and 90s, and will continue to be so far into the future. Possibly even when the Voyager Golden Record a spectacular project in which he was closely involved – is hopefully discovered by extra-terrestrial life some time in the next billion years.


Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.

PANIC by David Marr

image collage: PanicPanic cover image

It is highly telling of the nature of the language that surrounds refugees in Australia that as a child, before I knew the correct definition of the phrase ‘asylum seeker’, I thought it was some sort of dangerous weapon of war – probably because of another phrase I knew from my brother’s video games: heat-seeking missile. So, when the press reported in large fonts or alarmed tones that ‘asylum seekers’ were headed for our shores, the ensuing panic seemed wholly justified to my young, wide-eyed self. Had I known the true definition of the term – to seek shelter from persecution – I may have been a little more perplexed about the anger and fear generated by, as Marr puts it, these “wretched men and women arriving on our shores in leaky fishing boats”.

Panic by Australian journalist David Marr is a collation of much of his writing from the past decade, with postscripts for the present date in each chapter, plus an overarching introductory chapter explaining and examining the premise of the book: to bring light to (or, as he says, “bell the cat” of) Australia’s capacity to generate irrational bouts of fear (moral panics), and for those fears to be used by politicians and the press to manipulate the voting public.

I felt like I was bursting out of my skin with frustration reading this book. Not by Marr’s writing – he presents his opinions logically and eloquently – but with the injustices and often ludicrousness of the issues he discusses. I could think of more than a few people who would benefit from reading his ‘other side of the story’ – largely the story put forward by a few loud and powerful voices of the likes of Alan Jones with such red-faced, frothing gusto.

Chapters in this book cover everything from the rise of Australia’s One Nation party leader, Pauline Hanson (“a white woman sticking up for old White Australia” – not that it’s all that old; the racist-by-definition policy was only dismantled in the 1970s); to the absence of any constitutional rights in Australia “to protect us all from the madness that sweeps nations from time to time”; Aboriginal land rights; the Cronulla riots; homosexuality and gay marriage; the failed war on drugs; and the moral panic ignited by Bill Henson’s controversial photography (Marr has also written a book about the latter topic).

I breathed a sigh of relief when Marr mentioned of the Chaser stunt (watch it on YouTube here) during APEC in 2007 – an effective and hilarious up-yours to the powers at be, and clear demonstration of the purely rhetorical nature of the highly visible lockdown that made Sydney look like a prison. “Howard looked foolish,” Marr says. “Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can’t take a joke.”

Another consequence of the Chaser’s prank was to remind us that if there’s one way to counter this climate of fear its through humour – and that’s something most Australians are just as capable of as they are at clinging to the status quo. Here’s hoping the former prevails.

The Punch comic

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP

Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.

I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?

Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.

Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.

Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.

Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.


Lying by Sam Harris

discoodoni by Flickr

Is it ever okay to lie? Even those tiny white lies we’ve all told at some point (and probably tell every other day). No, your bum doesn’t look big in that. Sorry, I can’t make it, I have something else on that night. Thanks, I love it; I’ve always wanted one these…

What about with Nazis knocking at the door and Anne Frank in the basement?

This is the premise of author (The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape) and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ recent e-book titled simply, Lying. His answer is given loud and clear: No, it’s not okay.

Harris first came to this conclusion after attending a Stanford seminar in which the lecturer (Ronald A. Howard) asked the very same question of his students. The result was an epiphany for Sam Harris – the seminar affected him, he said, “in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.”

Of course, the bold statement that even lies to protect another’s feelings are wrong requires some disclaimer – truthful intent versus absolute truth being an important one. As for the infamous Do I look fat in this? If you are sure that there is, in fact, a subtext to the question, Harris says, and the questioner is really asking for assurance that you love the asker, then it is not untruthful to answer in the affirmative. But don’t take that as the easy way out if the truth is that the person is, in fact, fat. A more truthful answer might be, ‘I love you no matter how you look.’ But, if the questioner really is overweight, you are certainly not doing them or their future health prospects any favours by giving them false assurance – you are, more likely, protecting yourself from an awkward or confrontational situation. It is, in effect, a cowardly way out.

This is a short book (58 pages including notes and acknowledgements), so I won’t go into its content too deeply as it has already been presented so clearly and succinctly by Harris himself. Simply put, Lying is a thought-provoking read and a great conversation starter well worth its $3 asking price.

It’s easy enough to say ‘thou shalt not lie’, or ‘white lies are okay’, but have you really thought about the moral implications of your words and actions? This is your chance.

Holy Cow! by Sarah MacDonald

I received Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure as a birthday gift, having expressed an interest in travelling to India (which, sadly, remains on my to-do list almost a year later). Even my birthday dinner was Indian themed and involved sarongs fashioned into saris, home-made curries, store-bought samosas and bindis drawn on with lip liner.

Having recently taken on the imagination tour de force that is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I’ll save for when or if I feel I can do the Booker of Bookers justice), I was delighted to sit down with my shiny new paperback copy of Holy Cow!

After all, here was a book written by a fellow young Australian woman – a journalist based in Sydney, no less. So while Rushdie sent my head spinning with his eccentric characters, intricately weaved plot and fantastical vision of his own country, Sarah could take me there like an old friend gossiping in a coffee shop.

And like the coffee gone cold, or the phone hot against my ear, I couldn’t put it down.

Having vowed never to return to India after travelling the country as part of her “middle class rite of passage” backpackers adventure over a decade earlier, Sarah finds herself back in the over-crowded, pungent place of her nightmares in the name of love: Her soon-to-be husband has taken a work placement there as the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) south-east Asian correspondent.

The bulk of the book covers Sarah’s search for spirituality in a country where mysticism and idolatry are available in bulk – and for a budget price. She spends ten days in silence at an ashram, and rather than preaching the virtues, her frustrated honesty is refreshing – and often hilarious. She spends hours waiting in sweaty, oppressive crowds to be smothered by the ample breast of a world-famous matriarchal guru and contracts a serious illness from the holy but filthy Ganges.

She calls herself a reformed atheist, replacing her steadfast views with curiosity. And fair enough – she went about it the wrong way. Atheism can only be founded in curiosity and is in fact a rejection of religion, which by definition discourages it. But that’s for another blog…

You can almost taste the stark contrast when she returns home to (what is also my home) Sydney, Australia, and relishes in the enormous blue sky and clean air, but you can also relate to her angst, her sense of something missing. Something like a connection with reality. This is why India remains at the top of my list of countries to visit. And I will get there one day, but when I do, I probably won’t write a book about it: The market for ‘young white person finds themselves in India’ has already been covered – and quite adeptly so – with this book.

Death Sentence by Don Watson

Don Watson’s Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language is vital reading for anyone who speaks and/or writes in the english language.

It espouses the importance of originality, clarity, brevity and honesty – the cover picture of a parrot is fitting.

“To write clearly is not to think shallowly,” its Australian author and public speaker Don Watson reminds us, lamenting that corporatespeak – disconcertingly akin to Orwellian doublespeak and Newspeak – has even found its way into sports commentary (“There has been a lack in terms of numbers of free kicks”) and weather reports.

The book is littered with painfully dull examples of ‘the decay of public language’ – of which John Howard (former Australian Prime Minister) and George Bush (no introduction required) provide ample material, contrasted to great effect with literary gems from the likes of J.M Keynes (“Words ought to be a little wild for they are an assault of thoughts on the unthinking”), Vladimir Nabokov (you know the one: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. …”) and Winston Churchill (“We shall fight on the beaches…”).

Watson’s own national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ doesn’t (and quite rightly) fair very well in his assessment, described as “thick”. (The line “So long as we’re required to sing ‘our home is girt by sea’ we are not likely to start putting our hands over our hearts” had me laughing out loud – literally, that is, not in acronym form).

So, next time you hear the words “moving forward” (here’s looking at you Julia Gillard), “in terms of” or [insert anything here]-“wise” making their way into your vocabulary (and that includes pointless and trite euphemisms that only muddy your message) consider tracking down a copy of this book, which even closes with a series of handy exercises for the reforming corporatespeaker.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Land’s Edge by Tim Winton

Entropy, 2006 from New Colour Works, Narelle Autio

Australian author Tim Winton has a way of witnessing the magical in the mundane; the poetry of the everyday, and this is especially so when it comes to coastal Australia. The beach.

Ever since Cloudstreet was compulsory highschool reading, I’ve been hooked on Winton’s words: Dirt Music, The Riders, An Open Swimmer, Breath, The Turning and, more recently, Land’s Edge. In almost all of his works, the ocean plays a pivotal role, if not a key character.

This short (just 104 pages) ‘coastal memoir’ looks back on the author’s own life lived in coastal suburbia, and his pursuit of a childhood dream of hot, sunburnt days at the beach, followed by long afternoons (cooled by the Fremantle Doctor) of escapism into the world of literature. His blunt, raw honesty is inseparable from his deep spirituality and sense of awe in the face of nature’s “blessings” and “miracles”. (“Blame it on a childhood of Sunday Schools… Call them marvels or natural wonders.”)

Winton’s vision of coastal Australia is perfectly complimented by the dream-like underwater prints of Sydney-based photographer Narelle Autio. Any Australian that grew up on the coast – the edge – will see themselves and their own stories in this tiny, poetic book, in which Winton manages so adeptly to explain the inexplicable. It’ll make you proud to be an Aussie kid that grew up in the ‘burbs.

“Robert Drewe has long argued that almost every Australian rite of passage occurs on or near the beach. The beach is where we test and prove our physical prowess, where we discover sex; it is often the site of our adulterous assignations, and where we go to face our grown-up failures. In the end, it is where we retire in the sun to await the unknown.” – Tim Winton, Land’s Edge