2011: a year in reading, elation and heartbreak (part 1 of 3)

These days my stories always begin with girls: one of the perils of writing novels about love is that in learning to understand it, it takes on an inflated significance in one’s own life. But then, as Morrissey sang, “if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” I believe that more truly now than I ever have.

In 2011 I finished 24 books, and the journey through them is inseparable from the adventure of my life. Where other authors’ reading lists are just that, lists, or stories of criticism and judgment, mine is one of feeling. In this first part of 2011’s epic, enjoy a tale of love, betrayal, fantasies of revenge, and spiritual crisis.

In this part:

  1. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
  2. Laozi, Tao Te Ching
  3. Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
  4. Bhagavad Gita
  5. John Birmingham, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand
  6. Albert Camus, The Stranger
  7. Peter Saunders, The Versailles Memorandum

January—March: To want to kill a man


On a night just before Christmas in 2010, I sat on a couch in a Collingwood townhouse and exchanged gifts with a girl I’ll call Emily. I gave her a pair of earrings with tiny dangling paper cranes, and a copy of The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974–my favorite book), and of Resurrection (Tolstoy, 1899). She gave me Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (2010)–my first encounter with David Sedaris, which I finished joyously before 2010 was done, and How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen.

It had been a long time since a girl I had such affection for gave me a book as a gift. It moved me. I told her meeting her was the nicest thing that had happened to me all year, she told me something similar but in retrospect less enthusiastic, and I suppose we must have gone to bed.

A year on, the girl is gone: eight months later the relationship fell victim to both our dreams of finding “big love” elsewhere. A great shame. In many ways I liked Emily better than any girl I’d known, and appropriately for this story of reading, she was the first lover I had who appreciates books as deeply as I do. That’s a hell of a thing to discover after twenty-nine years and then say goodbye to.

At the time I met Emily, around October 2010, I was still in the grip of my life’s first experience of true heartbreak. That February, a woman who shall be known as Hat Girl, who I’d been with for three years and lived with briefly before a catastrophic argument with her mother over, of all things, a donut, left me for a mutual friend. This friend, who I’ve since mentally branded “enemy for life,” took her from me when he could have taken his pick of anyone he wanted from the harem of female friends he cultivated. Perhaps they were or are in love. Hat Girl and I certainly had our problems, and he offered her an escape.

This episode showed me many things. How passionately I’d loved her. What it’s like to have the object of that love taken from you, to wake up at 3am night after night, knifed in the heart by her absence, and stand on the edge of an unfathomable abyss of loneliness. And true jealousy. If we lived in a different society, I probably would have rounded up my friends and had the traitor killed, half out of revenge for me and half for his offense against the brotherhood of men.

I know this sounds crazy. But we all feel these kinds of things, and we repress and sublimate what’s inappropriate or what cannot possibly work with our reality. We humans are united in love, but we’re also united in suffering and imperfection–in feeling and in being low.

Having been through these things I can use them in my writing and show people that they’re not alone. In an odd stroke of fortune, I got dumped just as I was writing the final scenes of my first novel, which deals with betrayal and jealousy that until then, I had never experienced.

The Count of Monte Cristo

It was my interest in such feelings, and in the desire of revenge, that led me to The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). I had just begun Dumas’s 600,000-word epic when Emily and I started seeing each other in October 2010, and with the distractions of new love and other books to contend with, it took me a long time to finish. We sat one afternoon at window of the Bell Jar at the top of Smith Street, and we joked about how many men tell girls, at first, that they are readers, and later it’s revealed as a lie. I laughed and said that there might come a time when I had to dump her because I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer, but on 10 March 2011, the count fell before my mighty resolve.

By then, my interest in revenge had faded. It had been over a year since Hat Girl, and Emily had finally blasted her out of my mind by revealing herself as a superior person in almost every way.

Tao Te Ching

But Monte Cristo was not the first book I finished in 2011. That honor goes to Jonathan Star’s translation of the Tao Te Ching (c.6th C. BC; trans. 2011). At the time, I had a game to play and a secret to keep, neither of which are things I do easily, and I turned to it for solace. The Tao Te Ching is the closest thing I have to a Bible since I left Christianity in my mid teens. I always have a copy on me. Star’s translation is my favorite to date, although I still have a sentimental attachment to Ursula Le Guin’s version (1998), which is beautifully typeset and the work of a wise heart.

I returned several times to these lines from Star’s version of verse twelve:

The sage is led by his inner truth
and not his outer eye
He holds to what is deep
and not what lies on the surface

The year was to be one of intense discontent, further heartbreak, and ultimately, of transformation, and this call to hold to the inner truth presaged a year of spiritual enquiry.

Just a few days after finishing Monte Cristo, I took my first ever trip to Europe. Sent by work to a conference in Berlin, on the way home I stopped by Paris, London, and Singapore. At the last, I had some banking to do for the electronic publishing business, hourigan.co, that I started the previous December.

While there, I discovered that the soul of Singapore is in Orchard Road, a mile of malls, and felt crushed to insignificance by the looming presence of the international bank towers downtown. The tragedy of modern Asia is that many parts of it are now animated by a completely vacuous materialism in which nothing but money has any value, and Singapore is as good as any a place as any to be struck by a feeling of profound inadequacy if you don’t (and may never) have the kind of wealth that frees you from work, gives you status, and lets you live in opulence.

I was to return home and sink into a pit of massive self-doubt. Should I try once more to become an investment banker, knowing that it would likely rob me of the time I need to write? Trade my hopes of personal fulfillment for money?

April: How do you justify your existence?

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

The book I bought at Kinokuniya in Singapore was little help. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (Robin Sharma, 1997) tells the story of Julian Mantle, a multimillionaire lawyer who, after suffering an intense but unnamed personal tragedy, gives up his career and travels to the Himalayas where he tracks down a reclusive spiritual community that teaches him their secrets. While well-intentioned, it lets itself down by its very premise: of course, as a multimillionaire, Mantle can afford to quit his job and devote himself to spiritual pursuits. One assumes he cashed in, put the money in an investment paying a reliable return and collected a pension of a few hundred grand a year. What hope does this hold out for the ordinary man? Nothing.

The Bhagavad Gita

Next stop on my spiritual crisis was the Bhagavad Gita (c.4th C. CE?), in the version by Stephen Mitchell (2000). This helped more. The Bhagavad Gita has two main messages: that the most wretched creature on earth is the man who shirks his appointed destiny; and that the way to live is to perform the action you are compelled to while abandoning hope of reward. This offered a way forward: do the thing you feel you must do.

And what I have always felt I must do is write. If that comes to mean a thoroughly middle-class existence, writing in my spare time and never earning riches or recognition from it, so be it. If there’s one thing that’s worse than failing at what you’ve tried, it’s the pressure of never having tried at all–the strain of being bloated with the festering corpses of a thousand stillborn plans and ambitions. If you’ve tried and failed, at least you can move on.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand

After the Bhagavad Gita, I finished He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (John Birmingham, 1994), the product of a thing tried and, at this stage I think I can say, probably failed. I’d started hourigan.co to help out Michael Duffy of Duffy & Snellgrove, who wanted to get Felafel out as an ebook but had no idea how. “I’ll figure it out and I’ll do it for you,” I told him.

Producing the book was a learning experience: I started a company, got an international bank account and accounts for Amazon KDP and iTunes Connect. I learned to create ePub and Kindle versions (not a remotely simple process, with the tools and formats available), posted them and monitored sales.

The problem? Felafel sells, on average, about 30 copies a month–and that’s hourigan.co’s most successful title. On each one, I make a little more than a dollar. I have to make the ebooks for hourigan.co and do the accounting in my spare time, after 40+ hours of work at my day job a week. But at the same time, the books I can publish don’t make remotely enough money to let me reduce the amount of time I spend as an employee. The situation only gets worse when you consider the books I promised people I’d edit free of charge (a misstep, I realize) in exchange for the electronic publishing rights. As of now, I haven’t worked on most of those projects for months.

Did I mention that I also look after a small copywriting business that employs two freelancers and writes hundreds of web pages a month? Oh, yeah, and I had also volunteered to be the treasurer of the Society of Editors (Victoria).

Felafel, then, while an entertaining book, stands here as the symptom of something that was to become a huge problem. More on that later.

Fear and Trembling

I next finished Fear and Trembling (Søren Kierkegaard, 1843; trans. Alistair Hannay, 1985), by completing the introduction. There’s a problem with Penguin Classics: the introduction is at the front. Yes, yes, I know that’s traditionally the place for it, but in fiction it is often a spoiler, and for philosophy–is it really necessary? We should have enough confidence in our own minds to encounter philosophy for the first time as it was written. Second-hand explanations can come later.

I had abandoned the intro to Fear and Trembling in a hospital waiting room several months earlier, and returned to it only for an easy get on my lists read. I’d gotten the meat out long ago: around May in 2010, Kierkegaard had inspired me to take a leap of faith and abandon a girl I was seeing but wasn’t falling in love with.

The Outsider

Then came The Stranger (L’Étranger, Albert Camus, 1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert, 1946), starting one of the year’s other reading themes: angsty books everyone else seems to have read as a teenager. Discussing it with Emily, I found that she, like most people I know, had read it while at high school.

The Stranger had two major effects. First, it reminded me how much I loved short books, and gave me the idea that I could serialize my novel No More Dreams as an ebook in three parts of about 60,000 words each. Second, it got me interested in Camus. Months later, on 4 October 2011, I’d attend a lecture, “Albert Camus and Nihilism,” by Ashley Woodward of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. There I’d hear that where Nietzsche took an elitist approach to solving questions of alienation, morality after God, and the realization of human potential, Camus had insisted that the solution must be a solution for everyone. The same approach that applied to him, the philosopher, must also be accessible to the common man: the slave, the subcultural outcast, the oppressed.

This was a revelation. Throughout the whole of 2011 I’d wrestle with the issue of repeatedly being frustrated in attempts to connect with others (a problem I think I share with most of my postmodern urban neighbors), and here was a piece of the puzzle solved. I’d encountered Nietzsche in my late teens, through Milan Kundera, and although it introduced me to the notion of self-overcoming, which I’ve found transformative, it also strengthened a pre-existing belief that I was fundamentally different from, and therefore separated, from other people.

If, like Nietzsche, you believe you walk a lonely road, your road will be lonely. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The encounter with Camus showed me I should try dealing with at least some of the problems of life at ground level instead of up in the mountains: down in the streets and gutters of life where we all love and suffer and rejoice and die.

The Versailles Memorandum

April finished with another book I published during the year, The Versailles Memorandum by Peter Saunders (2009; ebook by hourigan.co 2011), who I once worked with at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Peter is one of the most inspirational, wise and educated people I’ve ever known. This, to date his only novel, is set in a dystopian near-future where large parts of Europe are governed by Sharia law, and and deals with the issue of Western intellectuals’ loss of confidence in their own civilization and its values of rationality and individual freedom. It’s not received remotely the attention or readership that it deserves: check it out.

Look for part two soon, starting with “May: Peaks and valleys,” and continuing with “June: Alice,” “July: The show for nerds,” and “August: Oh-oh.”

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.