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Stop Being Reasonable

Eleanor Gordon-Smith (NewSouth Books, available now)

Stop Being Reasonable is our First Book Club pick for April – join us on 23 May for a free in-conversation event with the author at Readings State Library.

In 2016, Eleanor Gordon-Smith put her years as a high school debating champion into practice for a social experiment. Standing  on the street with her recording equipment, she waited for men to catcall her, then asked them why they’d done it. Entering into a dialogue with these men around the ways in which their behaviour was threatening to the women they targeted, she found that some of them genuinely believed that there was no way they were the bad guys. In some cases, their beliefs – that it was all just a bit of harmless fun, that girls actually ‘like the attention’ – were totally ingrained. Surprised that her logical arguments couldn’t turn these men around, Gordon-Smith got to wondering why they thought this way, and how their minds might be changed.

I’ve never read anything quite like this book; it is empathetic, sharply intelligent, and accessible.

Stop Being Reasonable furthers the ideas sparked with the catcalling experiment (which was featured on an episode of This American Life). The book details five case studies; each is a story of a person who maintained strong beliefs that were at odds with rational thinking, and who, either on their own or due to a change in circumstances, each changed their mind. There is a lot of tragedy in these stories – one subject discovers her husband is a paedophile; another leaves the cult he was born into and almost loses his relationship with his parents because of it; another discovers in middle-age that he was adopted, and everyone in his life knew except him. But there is also always something fascinating to explore. How does someone hide a life of sex crimes from their partner? How do you stop believing something you’ve been conditioned not to question from birth? What would you do if you discovered a Truman Show-esque secret in your life?

Gordon-Smith is a philosopher, so every one of these case studies is underpinned by philosophical theories. By pairing this heavy, academic thinking with stories that are, in most cases, pretty sensational, Gordon-Smith gains the ability to coax all kinds of readers into engaging with philosophical thought. This is gateway philosophy, in the most complimentary sense – philosophy for people who may not think they’re clever enough for it.

I’ve never read anything quite like this book; it is empathetic, sharply intelligent, and accessible. We live in polarising times, and it’s more important than ever to try and understand the way people think, and how we all might improve the ways we share ideas and engage in discourse with those whose opinions (and lived experiences) differ to our own. Stop Being Reasonable demonstrates how we might begin to do just this.

– Ellen Cregan

Room For A Stranger

Melanie Cheng (Text, available now)

Take a look at your life; how brave are you? How often do you look for the easy way out? Do you stand up to everyone who undermines you, or do you let things slide in the name of keeping the peace? It’s not an unusual thing to consider – am I doing enough for the world? Am I doing enough for myself? Melanie Cheng’s Room For A Stranger interrogates self-love and self-care in the most earnest of ways and reflects how most of us think and behave in our worst moments, when we perhaps need the most love and care from those around us, but especially ourselves.

Andy, in his early twenties, believes himself to be a coward. Buckling under the pressure of his family to get into medical school, settling into a new home in Melbourne, confronting microaggressions and full-blown racism, as well has having to answer to his friends’ interrogations about living with a senior woman, he feels that he has failed immensely in his short life.

Meg, now at a stage in her life where she’s reflecting on what she’s accomplished, she recognises that there are experiences she has perhaps missed out on by doing what was expected of her, rather than what she wanted.

Both are understandable, but both are wrong.

Room For A Stranger’s beauty lies in confronting the unknown parts of ourselves.

The novel is punctuated by one-liners from Meg’s African grey parrot, Atticus, who perhaps provides the most perspective on both their lives. Blurting out one-liners from old sayings or children’s nursery rhymes, he is both unaware of his surroundings, and far better equipped to handle the little details in life.

After flying away while accidentally left unattended, Meg says to him: ‘Why did you come back? You’re only going to be abandoned,’ to which Atticus replies, ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary.’ When Andy asks him to say something new, Atticus complies with ‘Something new!’

Cheng’s creation of these markers in the story, and embedding them in the readers’ mind in this way, is a testament to her ability to speak volumes with so few words. This was true of her short stories in Australia Day, and the need to feel a sense of connection and belonging continues throughout Meg and Andy’s development as unlikely friends.

Meg thinks to herself that she made a mistake living as Atticus does, that is to talk ‘without really saying anything,’ and wishes that she had more meaningful conversations. But perhaps it’s not about saying the right thing, or the most important thing, but about sitting in the heaviness of it all, and letting the stranger parts of yourself become homely. Room For A Stranger’s beauty lies in confronting the unknown parts of ourselves. It’s facing up to feeling lonely, feeling like you got left behind, like you’re disappointing everyone you love, and being disappointed by your own expectations. Room For A Stranger is a timely reminder of all the badness in the world, and a reminder that we don’t need to give into it if we don’t want to.

– Vanessa Giron