Over here on Goodreads, we like to think we're book nerds; but every now and then, you run into someone who's a real
book nerd, and you're quietly but firmly put in your place. I met Judith Crabb last year when we were visiting Adelaide, and I have to admit that, compared to her qualifications, mine pale into insignificance. I'm an amateur who likes reading. She's a professional book person, who for several decades has been a third of Pioneer Books, an Adelaide-based antiquarian book seller and independent publisher. We immediately bonded on children's literature, where Judith is an expert; when I told her that I was a lifelong fan of E. Nesbit but had never read The Story of the Amulet
or Edward Eager's Nesbit homage, Half Magic
, she quickly found copies of both books and insisted on giving them to me as a present. They were every bit as excellent as she said they would be.
And now, I have just read this essay, and once again feel that I've been tactfully shown the difference between the gifted dilettante and the professional. In the first few pages, Judith explains the background. Some time in 2011, she was reading J.M. Coetzee's book Youth
and imagined that she had found an egregious error: referring to the Antarctic hero Captain Oates, Coetzee calls him 'Titus'. Surely a confusion? But when she wrote and complained, Coetzee politely replied to say that Oates was jocularly called 'Titus' by his friends. That English sense of humour, you know.
It's not every day you get a letter from a Nobel Prize winner, and Judith was mortified at, for once, having got it wrong. She decided to do penance by reading all of Coetzee's novels in chronological order and then writing a short book about them. This is the result, and it's utterly charming. I often think that we Goodreaders are too hasty about books; we grab them off the Internet, gulp them down quickly, and post a review before we've even had time to think about what we've read. Judith comes from a generation that did things at a more appropriate pace. She describes how she insisted on getting every book through her local library (in most cases requiring an inter-library loan), finished each one before starting on the next, and spent the better part of a year composing her leisurely memoir.
I am ashamed to say that I have never read any Coetzee, though Judith's book makes me feel I should do something about that. If you're a Coetzee fan, you really might want to consider checking her out and discovering how people used to do reviewing. In some areas, alas, progress seems to have worked in the wrong direction.