The story of Angus and Robertson is the story of books in Australia. Our reading has changed a lot in the past 130 years but there are always some books that live on becoming hallmarks of a generation.
Spread across 13 decades, here’s an epic history lesson delivered in 13 timeless books.
It’s hard to imagine a world before vampires - a world before Dracula. Penned in 1897, this mighty novel of letters, diary entries and ships logs kicked off a popular phenomenon that carries on to this day.
The all-too-familiar story of a cruel-looking count in the mountains above Transylvania with a taste for blood was by no means a bestseller in its early life. Its Irish-born author was seen as only one of countless writers obsessed with the gothic, aspiring to be the next Edgar Allen Poe. He took the name Dracula from Romanian history - “The Order of the Dragon.” It was a 15th Century group of Knights who fought the Turks in the name of Christianity. Most notable among them was Vlad the Impaler, a madman who murdered tens of thousands of civilians during his reign.
At the turn of the century, Dracula was horrifying people across the Western World. Then came a hugely successful stage adaptation and several films to follow. The iconic image of the cape-clad fanged creature traveled all the way from Transylvania to Sesame Street. Most recently, vampires have taken on a new life as sparkly-skinned American teenagers in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga written over 100 years on.
The year Australia federated from a group of British colonies and became a nation, Stella Miles Franklin had her first novel released into the world. Prefacing the novel, Henry Lawson spoke of its ‘painfully real’ depiction of life on the Australian frontier.
My Brilliant Career is a fictionalisation of Franklin’s own childhood experience in drought-stricken New South Wales. It’s told from the perspective of Sybylla Melvyn, a bold young woman whose life is crippled by her father’s drinking and the poverty that follows. Made to feel unworthy of a man’s affection she aspires to a life of reading and leisure away from her family's misfortune and struggles ultimately to not be defined by marriage.
The book was massively popular and Franklin became something of a celebrity which caused an uproar given the clear parallels to her personal life in the story. She withdrew My Brilliant Career from publication for decades and it’s sequel, My Brilliant Career Goes Bung wasn’t published until 1946. When she died in 1954, she bequeathed her estate to found the Miles Franklin Literary Award to help foster generations of great Australian writers. Her books remain Australian classics to this day.
Could there be any more magical children’s story than that of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up?
Before J.M. Barrie’s stories were immortalised by Walt Disney, they were bedtime tales told to two orphans he cared for about a mischievous boy who could fly and had adventures in Neverland with mermaids, pirates, Native Americans a fairy named Tinkerbell and a girl named Mary Darling.
Pan was taken to the stage in 1904 and the classic children’s novel arrived in 1911. Before Disney's earliest adaptation of the story in 1953, J.M. Barrie donated the copyright of all of his work to Great Ormand Street Hospital, a children’s hospital in his native London.
After the First World War, America became an opulent capital of western culture. This was the Age of Jazz - the Roaring 20s. And synonymous with this world of excess and frivolity was Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby is the ultimate critique of modernism and the American Dream - the idea of pursuing happiness through material wealth and the ardent belief that times will continue to get better. Through the incredible characterisations of Gatsby and Buchanan, Fitzgerald exposed the post-war heartache and terror underneath New York’s thin veil of splendour.
Perhaps a little ironically, the author became a shining example of American success himself, spending his life in decadent hotels and fueling his alcoholism with the enormous payouts he received for his novels and short stories.
This, his most famous work, has been adapted for theatre, radio play, opera and ballet and, most successfully, for the silver screen. The most famous film versions are that of Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 and our own Baz Luhrmann in 2013.
The 1940s brought the world into the most widespread conflict yet. The diary entries of Anne Frank are a written record of the human cost of war.
Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart...
Anne Frank was a German-born Jewish girl whose family fled to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power in the 1930s. On her thirteenth birthday, she was given a blank book in which she began her diary. Within a few weeks, their family was forced into hiding from the occupying Nazis and she would never be free again. Alone with her thoughts, Anne poured her heart into the diary, hoping that one day, it could be published as a novel after the war. The family were eventually captured and only her father, Otto survived.
Today, the diary has been translated into over 60 languages and inspired adaptations for the stage and screen. The office building she hid in has been preserved as a museum for the public.
After the Second World War, a new generation began to rage against their parents shell-shocked return to strict Christian values and culture. At the heart of this wave of ‘beats’ was Jack Kerouac and his stream of consciousness pseudo-biographical novel, On The Road.
The novel is told by a young, optimistic Sal Paradise who joins the booze and drug-addled Dean Moriarty on an adventure backwards and forwards across America. They chase jazz, sex and chemicals while on the run from women they’ve hurt and a society that wishes to conform them.
This breathless adventure began it’s life as a series of massive scrolls of paper that flew out of the top of Kerouac’s typewriter, an effort to write with the spontaneity and fluidity of jazz music. These brilliant lengths of paper are now on exhibit.
'On the Road sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso machines, and also sent countless kids on the road. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road' – William Burroughs
Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird...
The 1960s was a turbulent decade of change. The civil rights movement was at its peak, together with a new counterculture of feminism and pacifism amid the heated tensions of the Cold War. It was 1960 when Harper Lee released her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book is based on events near Lee’s hometown in the Depression. It’s a moral story of racial injustice, class, compassion and the loss of innocence told through the perspective of the incredible Scout Finch whose father is an attorney called to defend a black man accused of an awful crime.
The book received immediate critical success but the author chose not to continue a career of writing. In 1962, the book became a film for which Gregory Peck won best actor at the Oscars. Since first publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has never been allowed to go out of print.
In the 1970s, Australia had an explosion of art and culture. The Opera House finally got its sails and the world looked to us to tell our stories. What we gave them was Colleen McCullough.
The Thorn Birds is a romantic saga based around an outback sheep station over generations between the First World War and the end of the ‘60s. It tells the story of romance doomed to chaos between the beautiful Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph de Bricassart. In 1983 the 700-page novel became a TV mini series starring Christopher Plumber causing it to go on to sell over 30 million copies.
It became an Australian classic for its unrelenting portrayal of outback life. Colleen McCullough published 25 books before passing away in 2015.
First with your head and then with your heart...
The 1980s gifted us with another legendary storyteller, Bryce Courtenay, whose first novel, The Power of One, a story of the triumph of human spirit, sold over 8 million copies and made him a household name in fiction.
The book is the story of an English boy, Peekay, in South Africa during the 30s and 40s. Bullied and abused during school, he sets off on an incredible journey to become the master of his own life ultimately facing off with his school yard aggressor in a fight for justice.
The Power of One became a Hollywood film in 1993. Courtenay ended his career as an advertising executive and went on to write 23 books.
After the turn of the century, American author Dan Brown took the book world by storm with his Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. The book uses conspiracy theories about the Vatican and some of the more secretive sects of Catholicism to explore an alternative version of Christian history in which the Holy Grail is a cover up of the hidden bloodline descending from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
The book was enormously popular for its murder mystery structure and blasphemous conspiracy dispite being largely disliked by critics. Dan Brown was also accused of stealing material from academic writers for the novel and was sued unsuccessfully.
Dan Brown has now written six books and had The Da Vinci Code made into a film starring Tom Hanks. The novel was outsold only by Harry Potter.
When the world got eReaders, it also got all kinds of self-published fiction. Riding the crest of that new wave was Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic romance novel that came from nowhere to take over the world.
This book is definitely not for children. In it Anastasia Steele is a literature student and Christian Grey is a billionaire. Together they start a passionate love affair and do all kinds of stuff.
The Grey books have now gone on to sell over 125 million copies and have been translated into 52 languages. The way in which the novels originated with an ebook audience, with no professional editing, changed the face of publishing.
Critics have dismissed both the books and the Hollywood adaptation and the series is one of the most parodied in history. The franchise has also been targeted for glorifying sexual violence against women. But despite all criticism, the series remains a favourite with readers.