What, why and how to read The Shock of Recognition

A Nobel Prize winner; one of Australia’s leading composers; the Chancellor of one university and the Vice Chancellor of another; two former Victorian Premiers; several former Federal Ministers and ditto Victorian Ministers; assorted authors and journalists; a few lawyers and judges; and, assorted others attended a book launch at the Hill of Content bookshop in Melbourne a few months ago.

What was remarkable was that none of the above was the author nor the official launcher. The book was Barry Jones’ new one – The Shock of Recognition – which was launched by Julian Burnside.

The blog has been reading the book on and off for a couple of months because it’s that sort of book. But the reading also prompted three questions: what is the book, why should you read it, and how can you best read it?

First, what is it? In a mundane sense it is an amplification and explication of the lists of books, music, people which concluded Barry’s book A Thinking Reed – a thought-provoking and informative example of what a mere list can be. But it is also a profound and passionate reflection on a life dedicated to the search for transcendent experiences in books and music.

In some ways it is reminiscent of Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia without things like James’ very odd judgements on Gibbon and Golo Mann and that book’s tendency to make you want to throw it at the wall a few times during the reading. In contrast Barry’s section on Gibbon is both warm appreciation and superb succinct summary.

Second, why read it? Most importantly it is a guide to life. As Barry says: “I have a strong, probably obsessive, drive to fill the unforgiving minute with insatiable curiosity about the world and passion for experience and aesthetic excitement. How much time do I have left? A hundred days? A thousand days? Young people may have 20,000.But that is not justification for postponement.”

For a man who has often cited the adage that the Labor Party owes more to Methodism than Marx, Barry draws on Engels and Lenin to consider the concept that “time is the medium in which we live, the only irreplaceable resource”; the Engels notion of time as a form of external control; and, Lenin’s Who/Whom? question which highlights that “the capacity to manage time is the major distinction between those who exercise power and those on whom it is imposed.”

This perspective makes one think about the Stoics and Barry’s beloved Montaigne. In the 19th century, and perhaps up until WW1, Stoicism was often interpreted as being about how to die a good death. When in fact it is about how, as you are going to die, you should live. Montaigne, as Barry says, tells you more about how you ought to live than you might want to know. Montaigne is also a prophet – witness his characterisation of people who might well be members of today’s Liberal or Republican parties – “between ourselves, these are two things I have always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.”

The Shock of Recognition is also a map – a map of how to educate yourself – and possibly the best how-to-book a budding autodidact could read. It is particularly relevant to teenage boys. As a working class boy in his teens in what was then considered an outer suburb with unmade roads and no sewerage (much before Whitlam unfortunately), the blog yearned for the sort of intellectual guidance such a book could provide. Certainly the blog had some good teachers. The gruff and stern ex-WW2 Serviceman,  Roy Payne, introduced the blog to the State Library, Namier and the debate about the rise or fall of the gentry which inspired a lifelong passion for history. Max Tomkins, a theatrical and prickly English teacher (still is, the blog thinks, after catching up with him a few years ago in Adelaide) was also inspirational about literature, Lear and the Brontes. But otherwise the milieu was sport and more sport. It might have all been different if The Shock of Recognition had been available then. At the very least the blog would have been, when pursuing girls, much better able to fake being an intellectual than he was.

Barry’s passion for music is also something which inspires. Back in the 1970s the blog had never really got Bach. Partly it now suspects from hearing too much badly-played Bach (a phenomenon illustrated a few years ago by Angela Hewitt in the Melbourne Recital Centre when she alternatively performed Bach as many do and then as she did). Hewitt reminded the blog of an impromptu lecture Barry gave it in the Victorian Parliamentary Labor Party rooms more than 40 years ago which set the blog off to listen anew to Bach, while simultaneously and diplomatically teaching the blog not to come to immature judgements on music it didn’t understand.

Third, how to read it? There are basically three ways – dipping, quick overview reading (Barry’s recommendation for War and Peace by the way) and then a more comprehensive consideration of individual sections.

The blog started by dipping. It had just been reading Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novella about Shostakovich. It is a book full of empathy and places the reader in the composer’s mind and milieu to explain what he did and when. It also, implicitly, raises the question all those who are self-righteous about what others did in the past should be made to answer: what would you have done? Going to the entry on the composer in Barry’s book was to encounter the same empathy combined with acute understanding of the music.

Similarly Julian Burnside, when launching the book, pondered why Barry hadn’t mentioned that the people working on the original King James Bible read sections aloud to see how it sounded. The reason is probably that Barry knew that the latest scholarship suggests that this story is not correct and that manuscript versions were circulated and annotated comments were sent back. Barry also points out the influence of Wycliffe, Luther and Erasmus (it is by the way the 500th anniversary of his Greek New Testament this year) and most importantly the martyr Tyndale – whose work provided the bulk of what we now think of as the KJV. Tyndale could be said to the victim of many enemies but was primarily a victim of that notorious persecutor and torturer, Sir Thomas More.

Barry provides a reference to the best Tyndale biography, by David Daniell, just as he provides many other references (including details of translations where necessary) to works he cites and outstanding performances of the music he loves and recommends.

There is much to enjoy in this book with introductions to important writers some may not be familiar with – Margery Kempe, Musil, Zamyatin – and perceptive readings of everyone from Homer and Virgil to Shakespeare and Cervantes and on to Flaubert and White.

It also contains one of the few sporting jokes Barry may have ever made – comparing Cervantes’ invention of a new literary form to a cultural hole-in-one – even if it is bit inaccurate in terms of frequency. The blog also thought he may have detected a slight error in the John Cage entry but decided it must be wrong.

But the book also raises another question. With Gough sadly departed Barry Jones may have visited more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other Australian. A next book – featuring his travels and the cultural contexts – would be another guide to life; a reason for thinking about new travel prospects; and, a map which would be a perfect guide to where you should go.