This is the question that the lovely people at ArtsWom asked me this week. I've been mulling it over for days -- should I opt for something new, something old or something I've never actually read before?
I don't know about you, but if Armageddon was just around the corner and there was nothing I could do about it, I'd be inclined to find some words of comfort in an "old familiar", a book that I'd read many times, knew well and loved a lot. I'm not the type of person to re-read books, because there's always too many unread ones awaiting my hungry eyes, but over the years I've made one singular exception. I have read My Brother Jack by George Johnston, a war correspondent turned novelist, three or four times over the course of my life, and every time I read it the story resonates on a different level, almost as if it mirrors my own growing maturity.
My Brother Jack, first published in 1964, is an old Australian classic and not much known outside of its homeland. It was the first book of George Johnston's to achieve critical acclaim and popular success. It won the Miles Franklin Award -- Australia's equivalent to the Booker Prize -- in 1964 and has been adapted for TV twice.
The book, which is semi-autobiographical, tells the story of two brothers who grow up in suburban Melbourne between World I and II. The elder brother, Jack Meredith, is the epitome of the macho Aussie male, full of bravado and determined to fight for his country, while David, the narrator, is more introverted, unsure of himself and his place in the world. Ironically, it is David who gets to see the front line as a celebrated war correspondent while Jack, through one misfortune after another, never passes his army medical.
What I love so much about this story is its brooding intensity and its quiet cynicism. It shows a harsh world in which ambition and material success are no replacements for a rich personal life. But I particularly identify with the narrator, a journalist who becomes an expat Australian, which is kind of the story of my life too.
All in all, it is a powerful read about a man struggling to come to terms with his own sense of self and sense of country at a time when such things were not discussed. The prose, too, is wonderfully evocative of another time and era, when class prejudices and propaganda dominated the ways in which people lead their suburban lives.
The reason My Brother Jack would make a good end-of-the-world read is simply because it's one of those books that makes you feel all the more richer for having read it, as if you've learnt something new about the human spirit and the ways in which we all long for acceptance, particularly from our immediate family. And that's kind of comforting if the world's about to explode all around you, right?
Now it's over to you: if the world were to end tomorrow what book would you read today?