Don McGlashan’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)
Don McGlashan’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJanuary 7, 2024

Don McGlashan’s reading hits and misses

Don McGlashan’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)
Don McGlashan’s books confessional (Image: Archi Banal)

Summer reissue: Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: Don McGlashan.

First published on November 1, 2023.

The book I wish I’d written

I tend not to envy other writers. I’m more interested in writing all the new songs that are in me, than wasting time being jealous of anyone else’s work, and, though I seem to be pretty healthy these days (touch wood), I mostly feel a pressing sense of things I haven’t written yet – as if I’m ensconced in a well-lit basement room, with the whole house yet to be explored.

Having said that, though, it would have been great to have written books with names like Philanthropy For The Newly Super-Rich, or Ten Years Among The Fado Greats, because that would mean I had once been wealthy, or had spend long periods in Portugal.

Everyone should read

I don’t feel particularly qualified to tell anyone what to read, but if I was, I’d encourage everyone to have a go at Dickens’ Bleak House – if only for the Bagnet family. Mr and Mrs Bagnet and their children Woolwich, Quebec and Malta – are pretty minor characters in what is a vast, rambling tale. Mr Bagnet, one of Dickens’s many marvellous grotesques, is a man of extremely underwhelming parts, but that doesn’t stop him believing that all his family’s moral and organisational rigour flows from him. His wife’s heroic, loving efforts to humour him and keep things going in spite of his uselessness have left me crying with laughter.

The book I want to be buried with

I have to say I wasn’t planning to do much reading after I’m dead. To quote Groucho Marx (although admittedly he wasn’t talking about coffins): “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

The first book I remember reading by myself

Possibly Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a journey into a fantasy land where figures of speech become laws of physics, and the edition I read had beautiful illustrations by Jules Feiffer. I remember recommending it to my teacher when I was about seven or eight to read to the class. She read a chapter, frowning increasingly, then quietly came up to me and told me to put it in my bag and take it home, as it was “a bit weird”, and was “alarming the other children”.

Or it could have been My Side of the Mountain, written in the 60s by a US author called Jean Craighead George. It’s about a kid who runs away from home in New York City and learns to fend for himself in the wilds of the Catskills. He befriends a falcon, who helps him hunt for food, and makes his own clothes from deerskins once his city things have turned to rags. It’s unsentimental, sinewy writing, with the ever-present danger and existential loneliness always balancing the gung-ho adventures.  I was so captured by it, I would stay home from school to help get the kid past each terrible hurdle.

From left to right: the book Don McGlashan would recommend to everyone; the first book he remembers reading by himself; and the other first book he remembers reading by himself.

The book I wish I’d never read

A book by Cory Doctorow, called Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, was certainly a low point. I was representing NZ songwriters on the board of APRA at the time, and I thought it might be useful to at least skim some anti-copyright writers, so I could know what we were up against. (Doctorow argues that artists shouldn’t own their work anymore, and that the best model for the arts should be the street mime, who puts a hat out, so that passers-by can contribute what they want, or nothing.) I guess I should have been adult enough to patiently hear his point of view, and agree to disagree, but I’m not that evolved. The problem with reading books on a Kindle is when you throw them at the wall, they break.

Dystopia or Utopia?

I’ve been reading lots of George Saunders’s short stories lately, most of which are set in a near future, where the world is more broken than it is now, and ordinary characters deal matter-of-factly with absurd cruelties. I’ve also read Saunders’ absolutely essential A Swim In A Pond In The Rain. It’s part discussion of his own writing process, and part dissection of a few great Russian short stories. In it – among many other wonderful things – he reveals that, when he writes, he doesn’t set out to make dystopian critiques of the world, he just finds a voice for a character, learns to speak in that voice, and then follows that character to see where the story will lead. After hundreds of revisions, the story emerges, less from clear intent or design, and more from a myriad of choices his subconscious has made. I find that really vindicating, as it’s pretty much the way I write my songs.

Greatest New Zealand book

The best NZ book I’ve read lately is The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey. I love the way the author ratchets up the sense of impending violence on a back-country farm, effortlessly crossing back and forth between the human world and the wild magpie world. I also love the rising avalanche of social media noise that threatens to engulf everyone and everything, with Tama the pet magpie’s gloriously filterless outbursts providing a Tourettes-like stream-of-consciousness narration throughout. It’s a ripping yarn, and it’s changed the way I look at birds in the countryside – the ones who are looking at me, anyway.

Best place to read

I always used to think that beaches were active places. Being a red-head, even thinking about lying still and sunbathing was potentially life-threatening, while swimming purposefully, digging holes in the sand, or building structures with driftwood were all OK, as long as you didn’t spend too long over them. But over the past year or two, my wife Ann has completely turned me on to the joys of arriving at a beach fully-clad and hatted, finding somewhere quiet, and then getting lost in a book for an hour, dimly aware of the sounds of waves, gulls and other people.

From left to right: a book about writing; Don McGlashan’s favourite recent NZ book; and another book that he’s been reading lately.

What are you reading right now?

I usually have three or four books on the go at once, especially when I’m touring, because I like to scour second-hand shops in small towns for books. Right now I’m reading Heart Songs, an early collection of short stories by Annie Proulx; dark, spare tales of lost souls in the New England landscape. I picked it up in the Viking’s Haul thrift shop in Woodville a couple of days ago. 

I heard Caitlin Moran interviewed on Kim Hill a while ago, so I impulse-bought her latest book, What About Men. I find her unerringly funny and wise, and her research methods – largely putting questions out online and then trawling through hours of random answers – may be unscientific, but they’re humane, and fruitful. As a welcome counterpoint to the depressing rise of toxic masculinity gurus like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, this is a must-read for boys, men, or for anyone else who happens to know a boy or a man.

I once heard Roger Hall say that he liked to read Patrick O’Brian’s entire 20-book Master and Commander series every few years – and I find that I do exactly that now. I read them with, and then eventually to, my Dad in his final years, and since he died 10 years ago, I look forward to revisiting them from time to time, like you would a favourite whisky that you keep on the top shelf and have to blow the dust off the bottle before opening. O’Brian is a beautiful writer, and the series is like Dickens with cannons. Initially I read it for the sea battles and storms, but more and more I come back to it for the detailed explorations of friendship, manners and character. 

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan is a revelation. It’s a cogent, brave book that sees Cave stripped of his old masks, talking without any archness or self-mythologising about music, love, loss and his new passion for ceramics. Really good company on the road.

Keep going!