Review: The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths

Book Cover

The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths (Black Inc, 2016).

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft is a very readable exploration of the writing of history in Australia since World War II. Written by highly respected historian, Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel examines the work of fourteen influential historical writers who have developed the way we understand history in Australia.

Each chapter focuses on a different writer and their most influential work. Griffiths starts with Eleanor Dark’s, The Timeless Land written by the novelist, in 1941. This work of historical fiction is about the Aboriginal man, Bennelong and his first encounter with white settlers in Sydney. The history of first encounters, and particularly the story of Bennelong is a thread that runs through the book.

Griffiths’ has a professional connection with each writer featured. Most of the writers Griffiths highlights are historians, but historians are not the only people who write histories. Included in his list are a novelist, a farmer, a poet and an archaeologist. Tom Griffiths does not merely recount the contribution of these writers, he also weaves in delightful anecdotes about his personal relationship with them and their writing. We read about the experiences of Griffiths as a student of Greg Dening at the University of Melbourne and his later experiences participating in Dening’s guest workshops at the Australian National University. We see some glimpses of Griffiths’ childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn while reading his chapter about the historian of the suburbs – Graeme Davison. Griffiths’ anecdotes throughout the book are carefully chosen and always relevant to Griffiths’ discussion of his chosen writer.

The art of writing is of great interest to Griffiths. We hear about the rupture caused by postmodernism in his chapter on Donna Merwick and her instructions to historians in training to use “precision and imagination” in their writing. The chapter about Inga Clendinnen includes Griffiths’ comments on the debate between Kate Grenville and Clendinnen concerning Grenville’s book, The Secret River. Comparing Judith Wright’s novel, The Generations of Men (1959) and her later history on the same topic, The Cry for the Dead (1981), Griffiths observes:

In relinquishing the semi-fictional form, some elements of her storytelling are lost: we miss the novelist’s confident access to thoughts and feelings. But other dimensions are gained: the story has greater gravity and a wider canvas, and uncertainty and silence become a part of the narrative.

This book is no hagiography. Where Griffiths sees it, he discusses the shortcomings of the writer’s work as well as the significant impact each writer has had on Australian thought. Griffiths recognises Blainey as “a ‘public historian’ before his time” as well as one of the writers who introduced a long-term perspective of Australian history by looking at economic and societal trends spanning more than one generation. He lauds Blainey for his “quizzical determinism and literary grace” and describes Blainey as “the great phrase-maker of Australian history”. After introducing Blainey in this way, Griffiths devotes considerable space to criticising Geoffrey Blainey to the extent that I was left wondering why Griffiths included a chapter on Blainey in this book.

On reflection I think that Griffiths is demonstrating something we all need to be mindful of. Griffiths recognises Blainey’s insightfulness and his important contribution to Australian historiography despite the fact that Griffiths disagrees strongly with the stance Blainey has taken concerning race in this country. Too often we ignore everything said by people we disagree with, even on those occasions when they have thoughtful comments which, if we would listen, are a positive contribution.

Every chapter of The Art of Time Travel is engaging and thoughtful – this review just skims the surface. Peppered amongst my reading notes from this book are the words “must read…”. The Art of Time Travel is a great introduction to influential histories of Australia, and mentions some books and articles that may have slipped our notice. Aside from the writers I have mentioned in this review, Griffiths also devotes a chapter each to Keith Hancock, John Mulvaney, Henry Reynolds, Eric Rolls, Stephen Murray-Smith, Grace Karskens and Mike Smith.

The Art of Time Travel is a book for anyone interested in learning more about some of the most influential writing about Australia’s past. It is not an exhaustive account of all the best books about Australian history, but it is a highly readable discussion about the work of fourteen writers which Griffiths argues should be remembered. I highly recommend that you take the time to read this book.

Awards

The Art of Time Travel has won the following award:

  • 2017 Ernest Scott Prize (an award for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand, or the history of colonisation)

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5 thoughts on “Review: The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths

  1. I have it. Now all I have to do is make time to read it. Would very much like time too to reread and review The Timeless Land, which stood alone for too long in its imagining of first contact from Benelong’s point of view

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    • Having the time to read it was my issue too. I bought it when it first came out but I knew that it would not be a quick read so I didn’t read it then. However, I will definitely read it again as there is so much depth to it. This is a book I can see myself referring to again and again.

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    • I have Tyranny of Distance on my TBR list. I am not interested in the topics of Blainey’s later books and I saw you were not impressed with his A Shorter History of Australia. I can’t remember what I have read of Blainey’s but I was moved by the quality of his writing.

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