Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Orwell and lamingtons

The latest New Philosopher magazine is out now, with work from Will Self, Roslyn Arnold, Jane Roland Martin, Oliver Burkeman, Tom Chatfield, Patrick Stokes, Matthew Beard, Nigel Warburton and others.

The topic: education.

My essay explores parents as teachers. I discuss how I try to broaden my children's education, by introducing questions of value; by highlighting the ties between human flourishing and mortality; and by recognising the edges of my own knowledge. A sample:
It is...vital to confront the limits of my own judgement. In 1819, thirteen year old John Stuart Mill was studying an advanced course in political economy—with famed economist David Ricardo. The boy had already read the classics of philosophy and literature, and translated passages into English. His father, Scottish polymath James Mill, educated him in Greek and Latin years earlier. James took John Stuart on peripatetic strolls: they chatted about the boy’s history studies while wandering. ‘With my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers,’ he wrote, ‘is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before’. It is a vision of young Mill as a thriving orchid, growing strong and handsome in its expensive, expertly-built hothouse.
But in less than a decade, this exotic was wilting. Mill was busy: labouring for the British East India Company, writing for Radical newspaper, The Westminster Review. But he was chronically depressed. He worked, but without joy or even drive. Even his favourite authors left him numb. He suffered what he later called, drawing on Coleridge’s poetry, a ‘drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief’. A young man of fantastic intellect and learning was dulled to it all.  
In his memoirs, Mill reflected that this malaise was partly educational. His father’s Benthamite utilitarianism, alongside the James’ stoic bent, left young John Stuart fixated on the wrong things. Instead of devoting himself to good works, and the cultivation of his emotions and fancies, he was committed to the calculation of happiness. Mill argued that this dogged scrutiny cut the ties between things and pleasures, making joys seem artificial. He also concluded that chasing happiness personally was a fool’s quest. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,’ he wrote, ‘and you cease to be so.’ He believed that literature, like Marmontel’s memoirs and the poetry of Wordsworth, awakened his sympathy with others, and encouraged the commonwealth of feeling lost to ‘analytic habits’. 
This is no snarky rejection of James Mill’s parenting. John Stuart was a prodigy, and it is a testament to his father’s generosity, patience and drive that the young man was able to remedy his own psychological ailments. He was educated to educate himself. This is also no libel against utilitarianism as a broad ethical theory, though it certainly revealed the blinkers on Bentham’s outlook. 
Mill’s depression and recovery is, first, a telling example of philosophical reflection, applied to itself: calculative rationality discovering its own limits. But it is also an epistemological point: what seemed a straightforward success at thirteen, was a more ambiguous achievement at twenty. 
(Photo: John Stuart Mill, Sophus Williams, Library of Congress)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Brisbane launches: The Art of Reading and My Sister is a Superhero

On Tuesday I tripped up to Queensland for some more muggy literary adventures.

Tuesday night was the Brisbane launch of The Art of Reading, at West End's glorious Avid Reader bookshop.
A great crowd, made sublime by Ashley Hay's
cookie monster t-shirt
A fantastic crowd joined me and Radio National's Sarah Kanowski to talk about everything from 'beer fiction' (like my Star Trek binge) to Batman, Austen to AJ Ayer.

Earnest philosopher face
The conversation is now online at Radio National's Books and Arts.

After the chat, I signed some books, then headed out to dinner at the Chop Chop Chang's.

Defacing products
Big thanks to Avid Reader, especially events mage Krissy Kneen and co-owner Fiona Stager, and to Sarah Kanowski for taking the time to read and talk so generously. Thanks also to Melbourne University Publishing.


The next day, after a quick trip to the Queensland Art Gallery, I launched My Sister is a Superhero at Where the Wild Things Are, Avid Reader's little sister shop.

I was joined by my illustrator extraordinaire, Peter Carnavas. There were dress-ups, cupcakes, quizzes, prizes and, of course, a spirited reading.

Iron Fist uses his powers to somehow read in that mask
Iron Fist watching Plaid-Man uses his drawing superpowers
Thanks to a great audience of superheroes and their parents, and to Where the Wild Things Are and the University of Queensland Press.

Secular Sermon: On Reading

At Deakin Edge (I'm the light blue speck in the middle)
On Sunday 17th April, I delivered a 'secular sermon' on reading at Federation Square's Deakin Edge theatre.

Hosted by The School of Life, the morning began with music from Angie Hart, including the beautiful 'Little Bridges'.

Drawing on The Art of Reading, I then spoke about my history of reading, the current spotlight on writing and writers, and the reader's power and virtues.

As always, more philosophical hand waving
An edited extract from the talk will hopefully be available soon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Melbourne launch: The Art of Reading

Yesterday evening we launched The Art of Reading at Readings Carlton. (By the way, Readings just won Bookseller of the Year 2016 at the London Book Fair. Kudos to all.)

All the seats were filled, which was nice--nicer still that the crowd seemed really engaged by Martin McKenzie-Murray's excellent questions. (He had, I note, actually read the book about reading.)

We spoke about my childhood, 'reader' as an identity, my own obscure prejudices, my books for children, and more.

Audience questions included: contemporary novelists who continue to affect me (I named Deborah Levy); a high school English teacher who reflected on the challenges of encouraging enthusiasm with teenagers; and an observation from Alison Croggon on my childhood discovery of being a reader, not a writer (I said it was weird, given my egotism, that I came to 'writer' late).

A fantastic night: many thanks to Marty, my friends, a great audience, my publishers MUP, and the award-winning Readings.

If you'd like to know more, join me Sunday for my 'secular sermon' on reading at Federation Square.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Out today: The Art of Reading

My latest nonfiction book, The Art of Reading, is out today.

It's a celebration of reading--not as a simple skill, but as a virtuous pursuit: something to be done with patience, courage, curiosity and so on.

It's also a grateful nod to the vital role of reading in my own life, from Sherlock Holmes and Batman, to Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch.

You can pick it up in all good bookshops or online in paperback or ebook.

Some praise so far:
' ethics of attention towards the written word.... [A]n eminently readable, rousing and hugely intelligent account.' - The Australian 
' excellent argument for why reading is desirable for its own sake.' - Bookseller+Publisher  
'[N]uanced, articulate... the book illuminates the many prejudices and habits that a reader can have--and how fluid they are.' - The Big Issue 
'A beautifully written and thoughtfully constructed ode to the inner worlds opened up by the page, and the role of reading in the discovery and development of the self. The Art of Reading is just what I needed to remind me I am neither alone - nor irrational - in my bibliophilia.’ - Tara Moss, author of The Fictional Woman  
'A compelling riff on the best kind of reading - with unfettered curiosity and courage.' - Hilary McPhee, author, editor and publisher

Thursday, March 24, 2016

'...guerilla philosopher...'

Last weekend saw the first newspaper review of The Art of Reading, from The Australian's chief literary critic, Geordie Williamson.

In 'Portals to a thousand worlds', Williamson refers to me as a 'guerilla philosopher', and describes my book as 'an ethics of attention towards the written word'. Spot on.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Melbourne Launch: My Sister is a Superhero

Who is this "Damon Young"? I am IRON FIST.
Yesterday I launched my third children's book, My Sister is a Superhero, at The Little Bookroom in Carlton.

I dressed up as Iron Fist, the kung-fu superhero powered by chi: a kind of vital energy. Ruth was the Winter Soldier, complete with Soviet mechanical arm. Nikos was Red Hood: the vigilante persona of old Robin, Jason Todd (killed by the Joker, then brought back to life). And Sophia was Hawkgirl, the martial spirit of an ancient Egyptian priestess. (Obviously.)

Nikos as Red Hood
Red Hood and Winter Soldier Ruth
cross universes to fight evil
Superhero downtime: Nikos and Hawkgirl Sophia

We began with a quiz, in which I asked FIENDISH questions like 'Does Batman have ears on his suit?' (The consensus was "no", but I enlightened the audience.)

Then I gave a quick art demonstration, showing how to draw the superhero sister. (And showing, at the same time, why Peter Carnavas is the illustrator.)

This man is not an illustrator
Then it was time for a reading of My Sister is a Superhero, and all the kids joined in to yell 'SUPERHERO!' with me.

Pretend superhero reading actual superhero book
We finished with an encore reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, a door prize (Wonder Woman cape and mask), and signings.

Book signer, unmasked
Once again, a glorious afternoon -- thanks to The Little Bookroom, University of Queensland Press, my family for coming along and dressing up, and all the kids for their enthusiasm (and heckling).

I'll be launching it in Brisbane next month, at Where the Wild Things Are, 20th April.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Are princesses real?

My latest essay for Island magazine is out now. In 'Are Princesses Real?', I give my daughter's youthful question a grown up answer. A sample:
Princesses are real, but not in the same way as primates are real. Princesses require institutions, which have to be invented. And then princesses are celebrated or mocked, served or harassed, in light of the broader cultures within which these institutions flourish (or flail), and the stories they tell. 
So the fictions that embellish princess lore—from Disney and DC Comics to the myth of ‘royal blood’—go on to alter the reception and treatment of these individuals and their families. It is impossible to disentangle the childhood fantasy of princesses, for example, from their current popularity and influence. To speak of Princess Mary is to discuss a figure of artifice, fancy and longing (to say nothing of historical inequality, deceit and avarice), which is no less real for this. Her reality as a public figure is mediated by fiction. 
In other words, the question of whether or not princesses are real becomes about the ways in which they are real. 
Island #144 is available in bookshops and newsagents now. Or subscribe for home-delivered literary goodness.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

On the charge of 'obsolete'

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott: are his ideas obsolete or just false?
My recent Canberra Times column was on the charge of obsolescence: 'Saying something's obsolete doesn't make it so'.

I'm arguing that this notion is often ill-suited to ethical and political debate: it suggests finality where none exists; progress where only struggle exists. A sample:
I don't believe that history is somehow on my side; that we can stop arguing now, because of some inherent historical momentum. If we accept our ideas and values can triumph over others, we also recognise the opposite can occur: strife is our political and ethical condition, and it does not magically fade when my clan is victorious. 
Phones and floppy discs become obsolete – humans must endure less convenient categories of failure.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

My Sister is a Superhero: OUT TODAY

Bamm! Thwack! Shazammm!

My Sister is a Superhero is released today. It's my third children's picture book with illustrator Peter Carvanas, and I'm thrilled to see it out in the world, cape rippling in the breeze.

A few early reviews are in:
This is a rhyming fun filled frolic from the creators of My Nanna is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate. Another wacky celebration of diverse personalities infused with familial love and an ending that will warm your heart.
Carnavas’ delightful ink pen and watercolour pictures conjure four active sisters (the quirkiest being a superhero) from Young’s rich and smooth poetry – combining to produce a double shot of humour. Each sister is accompanied by her own animal ‘sidekick.’ It’s impossible to read this book without a smile on your face and a chuckle in your chest. 
- The Children's Book Council of Australia 
Damon Young's wackily inventive rhyming text is perfectly matched by Peter Carnavas's character-filled illustrations. [...] This is a gorgeous bedtime story, or anytime story. - Kids Book Review  
This picture book for young readers is the third book in what has proved to be a much-loved series celebrating the diversity of family. [...] Damon Young...writes this fun-to-read book in rhyming verse with lots of alliteration...which is excellent for reading aloud to children from 3 years and up. [...] The watercolour illustrations [by] Peter Carnavas...are light and bright and full of joyous fun. 
- Buzz Words magazine