The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths – Book Review

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the-art-of-time-travelAustralian historian Tom Griffiths was hiking a pilgrimage route in rural France when he met three fellow walkers, all of them French – a salesman, a nurse and a counsellor. When they discovered Griffiths was a historian there was:

… a chorus of approval, even, dare I say it, a frisson of serious regard – something unexpected for scholars in Australia. And, as proud French citizens, they were ready with their next natural question: ‘Who are your favourite French historians?’

Griffiths replied; the French engaged and the heady conversation only improved from there. But over the next few weeks as he walked, Griffiths wondered if he would – or could – ever be asked this question in Australia.

In the unlikely event that the question ever be raised, The Art of Time Travel is his comprehensive and illuminating reply, where he nominates some of his favourite historians and tries to describe how they work. ‘This book,’ writes Griffiths, ‘is a quirky, serious and personal exploration of the art and craft of history in Australia since the Second World War.’

In his modesty, Griffiths fails to mention that the book is also a wonderful gift to anyone even slightly interested in the craft of writing history.

Griffiths has selected fourteen historians, and the chapter titles give a strong clue as to the ground covered and the perspective taken:

  • The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
  • The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
  • Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
  • The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
  • The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
  • The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
  • The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
  • Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
  • Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
  • History as Art: Donna Merwick
  • Walking the City: Graeme Davison
  • History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
  • The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
  • Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith

Each chapter is a lyrical, stand-alone essay written with warmth and generosity. Yes, each provides a useful introduction to the writer/historian, but each is also far more interestingly an insight into their preoccupations, their methods, their imagination and their craft. Griffiths successfully walks a fine line; often clarifying but never simplifying.

A historian’s finest insights are intuitive as well as rational, holistic as well as particular – and therefore always invitations to debate. As they write, they incite; they expect disagreement and they try to furnish their readers with grounds for offering it. Footnotes are not defensive displays of pedantry; they are honest expressions of vulnerability, generous signposts to anyone who wants to retrace the path and test the insights, acknowledgements of the collective enterprise that is history. Historians feed off the power of the past, exploiting its potency just as historical novelists do, but historians also constantly discuss the ethics of doing that.

Although I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly, this book lends itself to dipping into, and revisiting. I’ve read the works of many of the included subjects, I’ve studied under others and a few were new to me. But regardless of what I already knew of the subject’s work, I found each chapter full of insightful little gems.

But I still can’t imagine ever being asked, by an ‘ordinary’ Australian, who my favourite historian might be!

Publisher: Black Inc, 2016

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17 responses »

  1. I’ve never thought of Eleanor Dark as a historian, though I suppose she must have been. I’ve had Eric Rolls’ Sojourners since 1992 but never opened it (a gift from my father no doubt), and a couple of Henry Reynolds which I keep meaning to read. The Clendinnen sounds like ‘must read’. And Blainey but not Manning Clark, interesting.
    And I can’t remember the last time I was asked who my favourite author is, let alone historian.

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    • According to Griffiths, he was interested in the relationship between history and fiction and wanted “to explore how such an infuential novelist set about her historical task … Eleanor Dark never claimed to a be a historian but she took the craft of history very seriously.”

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      • See comment further down this list for a discussion about my favourite historians. Favourite author? Oh that’s too hard! I rarely re-read books but I do return to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series over and over again – does that make him a favourite? Helen Garner’s non-fiction is pretty much perfect – she’s definitely a favourite. As you said about Clendinnen, I like authors that stretch my brain (but not too far – James Joyce, for example, is not for me!)

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      • Hi Brona, I assume you were asking me. I’m sure MST will be my favourite historian as soon as her Elizabeth Macarthur comes out, but until then, seeing as I’ve named my blog after his most famous book, The Australian Legend, I had better say Russell Ward. However I do have this and another book Michelle has recommended (Finding Eliza) sitting on my shelves waiting to be read. Favourite author? Eve Langley. I’m too old to have a favourite current author although I do very much enjoy Jane Rawson.

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        • I have The Pea-Pickers on my TBR pile but have not read it yet – she keeps popping up on favourite classic lists – so I really must investigate sooner rather than later!

          I want to read this book too to expand my knowledge of Australian historians. I’d love to read Grace Karsken’s Colony book and the new bio about Judith Wright…

          This is how my TBR pile gets out of control!

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  2. That’s a very telling backstory to the book’s inception. It does make you wonder about how Australian’s perceive history. The book sounds like a really good resource for your writing Michelle. And what a great title!

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    • You’ve nailed it – the key issue Griffiths addresses is (and these are his words, not mine!): What is the role of historians in our national conversation and what exactly is it that they do? It is a terrific resource, but for all writers engaging with the past I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have heard so much about this book, and would really like to read it. I too was intrigued when I first read about Eleanor Dark being included, but I wouldn’t complain about it! I like Tom Griffiths reasoning, though Clendinnen may not have?

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    • Griffiths seems very interested in what might be loosely called the Australian historical conversation. How ‘ordinary’ people (whoever they are) think of Australian history. Dark contributed to that conversation, as did Judith Wright as did Kate Grenville (who is discussed in the Clendinnen chapter). And of course all those books about WW1 are contributing to it now (whether for better or for worse is a topic for another day!). It’s a fascinating topic and Griffiths tackles it in a very engaging way.

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  4. Who is your favourite historian, Australian or otherwise?

    My knowledge is not extensive – in fact I am the very ordinary person Griffiths speaks of, but it has to be Inga Clendinnen. I love how she forces me to stretch my brain. She takes me to brand new places with brand new perspectives.

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    • Yes, I think Inga Clendinnen is probably my favourite too, for the same reasons you like her. Bill Gammage certainly turned my world around with ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’, though and Bruce Pascoe takes Gammage’s work even further. Alan Atkinson is an important Macarthur scholar, as were Joy Hughes and Hazel King. Oh, it’s hard to pick a favourite!

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  5. Pingback: November Round Up – History, Memoir & Biography | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  6. Pingback: Best Reads 2016 | Adventures in Biography

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