Thursday, January 29, 2009

A tale of a humanist who loves books - Looking for a Good Book - a memoir of a life spent in Australia and Papua New Guinea

My earliest memories of my father are permeated by books. They were an integral part of the daily rhythms of his life. Books arrived constantly in boxes or cardboard sleeves, by ship and by air to our tropical outpost [in Papua New Guinea]; they were forever being stacked or rearranged in hall cupboards as protection against the ubiquitous threats of pests and damp. During his waking hours he was happiest musing over book catalogues or perusing the literary gold within his latest acquisition. It was a highly infectious affliction that he willingly passed on to his son. [Looking for a Good Book] is his 'tale of a gentle madness', written by my father during his sixties and seventies, the story of a book collector thrown hither and thither by tumultuous events beyond his control.

To set the scene of a quest for the roots of 'madness' like no other, the author dwells on several dramatic episodes from history (the battles for Troy, Gallipoli and the Aztec empire) that cast light on the sometimes fickle nature of literary records of human folly, frailty and fragility. He ponders the vital role chroniclers of history and creative writers perform in enriching our appreciation and understanding of past events. We are taken on a whimsical exploration of the 'anatomy' of collecting, and asked to consider the pathology of this 'madness' through the lens of anthropologists, psychologists, logisticians and historical informants.

The author was born in Victoria in 1919. The memoir casts back over his childhood in Golden Square and Eaglehawk in the Bendigo region. He remembers key influences on his early development as a reader and on his lifelong passion for book collecting. He left school at thirteen to work in a series of jobs in rural Victoria, joined the YMCA, and enlisted in the Australian Army in 1941. I once asked him whether his parents collected books. He replied they had none but the family next door lent him books. This part of the tale provides a snapshot of growing up in a small rural Victorian township in the 1920s and 1930s. We are told of his apprenticeship as a butter maker, membership of the YMCA, and aspirations to become a journalist. His increasing interest in and knowledge of writers and books is woven into all aspects of retelling his story: 'The progress from a desire to read, to a similar urge for ownership, indicates the affliction is now gathering momentum'.

The author describes the years following his demobilisation, during which he gained admission to the University of Adelaide under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Scheme. On completion of a Diploma in Social Science he joined the colonial administration in Papua New Guinea as a junior education officer. In preparation for his colonial service in early 1949 he was admitted to the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) located in Sydney. His association with the school lasted for 24 years, both as a student and later as a sometime lecturer. The first-hand account of studying at the ASOPA is a highlight of the memoir.

In late 1949 the author began his long career in Papua New Guinea, where he quickly climbed through the ranks to serve with distinction in a number of positions including Executive Officer for Social Development and Director of Child Welfare. He describes journeys into isolated areas, indigenous communities he visited, his appreciation of the work of colleagues and his own role in key actions of the Australian colonial government. Writers on PNG are canvassed, several of whom were personal acquaintances of the author. He retired from the PNG administration in 1973. In 2000 he received recognition for his contribution in a 25th Year of Independence award from the Government of Papua New Guinea.

My father survived wartime injury and illness and dangerous journeys in post-war PNG, and throughout his long and eventful life, books have remained a passion. In this book he tells us of his philosophy of book collecting, the methodology he applied in putting his collection together and historical antecedents to his 'madness'. The book finishes as he started, with my father musing on the nature of this affliction. He quotes Holbrook Jackson to advise fellow travellers about the joys of reading and collecting books. The rich and varied library he has collected is a fine testament to his continuing search for a good book.

‘Looking for a Good Book’ by Reginald Thomson. Order your copy [hardcover, 152 pp, $20 including postage] by contacting me by email:

Following is a recent review posted by Keith Jackson on his website, PNG Attitude:

"Reginald Thomson has written a book about books or, to be more precise, about his love of books.

Coincidentally Looking for a Good Book (Copyright, Brisbane, 2008) comes from the same publisher who brought us Gail Burke’s Meeting the Challenge.

While, unlike Challenge, this is not a book solely about PNG, it contains much that offers fresh insights into life in PNG between World War II and Independence. Which is not easy given the body of expatriate literature, published and unpublished, about the then Australian territory.

Reginald lived in PNG from 1949-73, beginning his career as a teacher and ending it as a distinguished public servant in the exacting post of Director of Child Welfare.

The central characteristic of Looking for a Good Book is the quality of the prose and of the extensive literary and life experience of the author. This, in short, is a book to read in phases – first for the savouring and then retained on the shelf for the occasional foray.

Reginald Thomson was born near Bendigo in Victoria in 1919. He left school at 13 to work for the YMCA and enlisted in the Australian Army in 1941. The book describes his Army training and his initial war service in New Guinea and at Balikpapan on Borneo.

After World War II, Reginald took a Diploma in Social Science, soon moving on to ASOPA. In the introduction to the book, his son Dr Mark Thomson writes: “The firsthand account of studying at ASOPA is a highlight of the memoir.” I agree. This is historic stuff and the cost of the book (just $20 including postage) is worth these reminiscences alone.

If you’re looking for a good book, Looking for a Good Book is for you. It is a well written and acutely recalled memoir. And underpinning everything is the author’s obsession with books. Made all the more poignant, as many of us who found ourselves in far flung parts of PNG would understand, by the largely unacknowledged part that books, precious books, played in our lives."