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Frank Bongiorno

For a man many would regard as the very epitome of the type, Raimond Gaita seems rather hostile to the concept of the intellectual. It is ‘irredeemably mediocre’, he explains, inferior to the kinds of moral and political responsibility that attach to teacher or politician. Intellectuals are active in the public domain, grappling with ideas, culture, and politics, but they have often lacked independence of mind, he says, ‘because they never had it or because they sacrificed it to the cause’.

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Max Dupain's portrait of Jean Lorraine, a favourite model among Sydney’s artists and photographers of the 1930s and 1940s, graces the elegant cover of Paul Dalgarno’s Prudish Nation. All that gives a somewhat misleading impression of the nature of this book. It is not a work of history. Nor is it an investigation of whether Australia is a notably prudish nation. The variety of gender and sexual identities examined certainly does not leave an impression of prudishness. If Australia was once prudish, it is obviously less so now.

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Books of the Year 2023

by Kerryn Goldsworthy et al.
December 2023, no. 460

What the authors of these three wildly different books share is a gift for creating through language a kind of intimacy of presence, as though they were in the room with you. Emily Wilson’s much-awaited translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Company) is a gorgeous, hefty hardback with substantial authorial commentary that manages to be both scholarly and engaging. The poem is translated into effortless-looking blank verse that reads like music. The Running Grave (Sphere) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the seventh novel in the Cormoran Strike crime series and one of the best so far, features Rowling’s gift for the creation of memorable characters and a cracking plot about a toxic religious cult. Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in this issue of ABR) lingers in the reader’s mind, with the haunting grammar of its title, the restrained artistry of its structure, and the elusive way that it explores modes of memory, grief, and regret.

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Publishers rarely become big news in Australia, university presses even less often. It was notable therefore that the departure in early 2019 of Melbourne University Publishing’s CEO, Louise Adler, and some members of the MUP board, became a matter on which so many of the nation’s political and cultural élite felt they needed to have an opinion. A strong coterie came out in her defence. This had much to do with Adler herself, who had courted their attention, published their books, and made MUP a story in its own right.

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There was a moment there, in the opening chapter of How to Rule Your Own Country: The weird and wonderful world of micronations, when I thought I was about to undertake an improving academic tour. The authors, Harry Hobbs and George Williams, are after all both legal academics. That first chapter has sections with earnest headings such as ‘What is a micronation?’ and ‘Why do people set up micronations?’. There are seemingly well-chosen quotations from experts, and a careful weighing up of definitions and opinions. 

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This week’s episode of the ABR podcast is devoted to the Books of the Year. With ABR Editor Peter Rose, critic and writer Beejay Silcox and historian Frank Bongiorno discuss the books that stirred them most in 2022. This follows a Books of the Year feature in the December issue of ABR, with contributions from thirty-six writers and critics. Listen to Peter Rose, Beejay Silcox and Frank Bongiorno discuss the best books of 2022.

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'The history of the Victorian Age,’ wrote Lytton Strachey a century ago, ‘will never be written: we know too much about it.’ Instead, he continued, he would ‘row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen … to illustrate rather than to explain’ (Eminent Victorians, 1918).

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Quo vadis, Australia?

by Joy Damousi et al.
July 2022, no. 444

Following the recent federal election, we invited several senior contributors and commentators to nominate one key policy, direction, or reform they hope the Albanese government will pursue.

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When Scott Morrison called the federal election in early April, he did so on an apologetic note: ‘I get it that people are tired of politics.’ This was a predictable gesture from the prime minister: his term has been marked by a series of controversies that have raised many questions about his capacity to lead on some of the country’s most pressing issues, though relatively few about his skill in internal party politics.

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Earlier this year, Ray Hadley was interviewing Scott Morrison on 2GB when the subject turned to the internal preselection battles of the Liberal Party in New South Wales. ‘And so it’s time for those who, you know, don’t do this for a living, to really allow those who really need to get on for the sake of the Australian people here,’ Morrison declared, none too coherently.

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