The On-Nibus

MUP, $29.99

Call it superficial, but it must be said: The title of this otherwise terrific publication really pongs.

The naff word-play refers to Melbourne University Press’s “On” series, a delightful collection of little books. Essentially, these are 10,000-word essays by luminous Australian thinkers, repackaged and sitting prettily on bookstore counters, enticing a readership not usually known for essay-buying behaviour.

The On-Nibus assembles the first eight authors in the series, which is also titled “Little Books on Big Themes”, in one of this year’s better conscious-reader’s Christmas presents.

A neat simpatico of author and topic here is no happy accident: each author was free to choose their Big Theme. Hence topics range from David Malouf’s heavily literary “On Experience” to Gay Bilson’s delightful “On Digestion” (an essay discussing rather more than digestion, raiding a metaphoric larder that includes the relationship between language and consumption, the sociology of cool new experimental cuisine, and her utopian restaurant).

Most of these musings revolve around the autobiographic, with Don Watson wringing anecdotes from his family history to illustrate “On Indignation”, which is marvelous and incisive, even if dated (references to George W Bush just seem a little passé in Obambaland, no?). Even more snuggly, Blanche d’Alpuget shares the story of her longing for her muse, a former prime minister. Barrie Kosky bares his ecstasy, from Mahler to the smells of the Melbourne Grammar Schoolchange rooms. Malcolm Knox examines obsession; Anne Summers takes a long line on luck and, with it, skewers a national lethargy.

The least personal, and, for this reviewer, strongest essay is by Germaine Greer, writing on rage, with astute, glum, and significant observations on Aboriginal dysfunction.