Ben Schrader: Best Books I Never Wrote

Ben Schrader, author of The Big Smoke. FFX BOOKS
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Ben Schrader, author of The Big Smoke. FFX BOOKS

Tangi, Witi Ihimaera

I read Tangi as a teenager in the early 1980s. As someone who lived in a middle class suburb that was overwhelmingly Pakeha, I was fascinated by the insights it offered into another culture.

Following his father's death, a Wellington clerk, Tama Mahana, goes home for the tangi near Gisborne. On the return journey he movingly reflects on his upbringing and his relationship with his father, whanau and the land.

Tangi was the first novel I had read that unselfconsciously used Maori words and I was captivated by the way it lyrically wove Maori mythology into the narrative. The book got me hooked on Witi Ihimaera's work and I've been a fan ever since.    

Soft City, Jonathan Raban

Raban examines how the anonymity of large cities enables people to experiment with their social identities; to reinvent themselves in ways that are liberating and not possible in small towns and villages.

He also charts how city dwellers shape their own cities by the way they navigate city streets and the associations they make with particular spaces and people. This is what makes cities soft: they are responsive to the imagination and habits of each resident. These ideas rang true to me when I read the book in the 1990s.

Having grown up in a society that lauded the land over the city, I found it exhilarating to read a book that celebrated cities and city life.

The Ideal Society and its Enemies, Miles Fairburn

This was the first New Zealand history book to get me really thinking. It challenged the conventional wisdom that sociability and close-knit communities typified settler society.

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Fairburn forcefully argued it was instead characterised by weak social bonds and anomie. His argument created an exciting and all-too-rare historiographical debate among scholars, leading to numerous studies that mostly debunked his argument.

Recently re-reading the work, I was struck by how stimulating it still was. Few local history books since have matched the force of its argument and its originality.

The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Delores Hayden

An academic, Hayden created the 'Power of Place' project in the mid-1980s to recover and relate the stories of minority communities in downtown Los Angeles. The book was revelatory and inspiring because it identified new ways in which the practice of public history could be broadened and made more democratic.

Through public art, walking tours, public meetings, and restoration of historic buildings, teams of historians, artists, designers and planners worked with communities to understand and preserve their stories. I was particularly struck by how the built environment was a protagonist in these stories. It's an idea that informs my own work.  


* The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920 by Ben Schrader (Bridget Williams Books, $60) is out now.

 

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