When I was 12 I had just finished what used to be called the scholarship exam and we had to read an Australian book, which was this book calledWe of the Never Never, which was about Australia. I was a little boy growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane and it was set in the Northern Territory and it meant absolutely nothing to me, it told me nothing that I wanted to know about life or anything else.
And then we went away for the Christmas holidays, which in Australia is the summer, and we went down to the beach at Surfers Paradise, and sitting on the beach at Surfers Paradise I read three books that told me everything I wanted to know. I was 12. One was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, one was Wuthering Heights and the other one was Jane Eyre. And I can remember, I mean, what’s the wonderful thing is that the mixture of that hot, hot sun burning you up and Jane Eyre going for her walk in the snow.
But that revealed to me absolutely everything about the power of imagination and books. But those books were also telling me things about how outrageous life was, about sex which nobody would tell me about, about whole sorts of other things that the whole adult world was conspiring to keep you from and which Mrs Aeneas Gunn did a fair job of keeping you from as well.
I mean, you can’t say what it is exactly that’s going to do it for a child or what it is in a book that a child reading is going to find. But those two things come together for me, the world of those books and that blazing sunlight on my head and my back.
You can read the rest of this wonderful discussion, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, about lost classics and the books that entranced David Malouf and Michael Ondaatje on ABC Radio's Books site.