The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Reading a book written about reading books involves a certain doubled type of readerly attention and produces an equally doubled readerly experience. That is, you have to keep track of at least two registers and how they interact – the first is the book that you are reading, the second is made up of the books that first book is reading. Okay, this sounds complex. But then, think again, and realise that this is just the reality of a ‘readerly life’ – a life in which the books you read are not just delineated moments but composed in part by, and in constant interaction with, the very texture of life itself.
Novelist and short-story writer Tegan Bennett Daylight’s new memoir, The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, is undeniably a book for readers. There are incisive essays on Helen Garner, George Saunders, J.D. Salinger, Brian Dillon, Charlotte Wood and Jane Austen. Reading Bennett Daylight read these writers, however – and this is why The Details is in no way a straightforward example of literary criticism – is about so much more than books.
Rather, The Details gives us a window to a life organised through books and writing: as a teacher striving to show students why books are important further to their place on the curriculum; as a parent explaining how books can help influence that impossible choice of the person you want to become; as a lover in dialogue with certain books, learning that perhaps love is the promise of a future for a part of ourselves we do not possess in the present. Books are centred as the present and the future of life – the still point of the turning world.
Books are the past in life, too. Death and grief certainly form a not inconsiderable part of The Details. But what do books do better than bridge that gap between the present and history? A life lived and a life remembered? Bennett Daylight writes with such care, perception and intelligence on this link between what we read and the life we lead – it will be impossible for the readers amongst us not to recognise its significance.