Victoria Reads: Stories That Matter (@PubLibrariesVic #VictoriaReads2021 #StoriesThatMatter)

As Australians, we cherish and celebrate reading. We love sharing our favourite books with others, and we value the important role of libraries in our community life.

According to Public Libraries Victoria (PLV), there are currently 276 library branches, 336 mobile library stops, and 72 other library outlets across the state. “At the heart of each library is a world of knowledge, potential, and inclusivity. Each is a safe, engaging and empowering place that is open to everyone to enjoy.” Two million Victorian members make a whopping 30 million visits to our public libraries every year.

Libraries change lives in the same way that stories shape our society and culture. After a long year of reading alone – and as we aspire to a healthy, safe and active year ahead – we can hardly wait to get together and share stories about our reading lives.

With this in mind, PLV recently presented “Victoria Reads; Stories That Matter”, a special online event featuring some of our state’s most treasured personalities. In the words of CEO Angela Savage: “In a time where we are in and out of lockdown, it is more important than ever that we give time to reading. Reading helps stimulate those parts of your brain that provide stress release and relaxation – and that’s a story that really matters.”

Hosted by Claire Hooper and Paul Kennedy, “Victoria Reads” invited Tony Birth, Nazeem Hussain, Alice Pung and Christian White to share their love of books and libraries. The 90-minute conversation highlighted books that changed their lives, books that made them smile, and books they would take to outer space. The speakers also revealed their loving memories of public libraries, and books that connect to a specific time of their lives.

Approximately 1,200 booklovers across metropolitan and regional Victoria registered for the event via Zoom on September 14. While the exact number of participants remains unknown, a quick online poll found at least 85% of them watched the event by themselves. It prompted Hooper and Kennedy to wonder whether virtual literary gatherings like this could one day be enjoyed by whole families.

Birch revealed his first trip to a library was “with trepidation”. He wondered what he should do in “such a place of silence” until a book caught his eye, and he was astonished to realise he could take that precious object back home. The teenage Birch enjoyed Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). For young writers wanting to “step out and take a chance”, he recommended Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), a collection of 43 short stories about women in all kinds of demanding jobs.

Hussain’s political awakening started with The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a great inspiration for all to stand up for justice. He recommended Majak Daw’s Majak (2021), where the Australian rules footballer describes how he endured unprecedented scrutiny as a Sudanese refugee and almost buckled under the immense pressure for him to become a role model for migrant youth and to speak for his entire community. Hussain enjoys Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) and would take Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) to outer space.

Pung would take the Bible to outer space, just to see how this “foundation of civilisation and human relations” could serve its purpose and whether the “struggles of humanity” would be reduced or magnified in that unknown dimension. She nominated Yumiko Kadota’s Emotional Females, Amani Haydar’s The Mother Wound and Lech Biaine’s Car Crash: A Memoir as stories that matter in 2021. Pung fondly remembered June Factor’s All Right, Vegemite! (1985) and connected Beverly Cleary’s Romona series – eight titles published between 1955 and 1999 – to her childhood.

Finally, White said Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor (1999) would always put a smile on his face. While writing his first novel The Nowhere Child (2018), he was influenced by Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (2009). White had tender memories of school libraries – the smell of books, the sense of coziness and security from bullies, and the idea that it is OK to hide there forever. He would take Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and Stephen King’s It (1986) to outer space because they are “nostalgic, scary and wonderful”.

For those who missed “Victoria Reads: Stories That Matter” as a live event, PLV offers a recording via the “Victoria Reads 2021” YouTube Channel, where bonus footage of Birch, Hussain, Pung and White discussing their reading lives can be found. PLV has also prepared a list of the books nominated by the speakers and their hosts, the books they have written, and other books recommended by event attendees. Interested readers can contact PLV for the full list or check out #VictoriaReads2021 and #StoriesThatMatter on Twitter.

Note: This review was originally published under the title “Victoria Reads 2021: Stories That Matter” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, September 21, 2021, P.12. Please note the minor editorial error: The event reviewed above is not a Melbourne Writers Festival online event.

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