Public holiday: the Library will be open on 3 October. View opening hours

Writers' room

On the opening of the Library’s Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room, Julia Horne reflects on the books that once lined her parents’ study and are now a feature of the room.


Donald and Myfanwy Horne, 1973, Lewis Morley, PXD 653/34
View collection item detail

Growing up with writers as parents, I vividly remember always being surrounded by books. The life cycle of a book — from the germ of an idea to the published work and its journey thereafter — was part of the rhythm of our family life.

I soon learnt how books were themselves the result of other books, how wide-ranging reading and conversation helped authors to test and scrutinise ideas, experiment with distinctive writing styles and prompt new directions of inquiry. The more books that entered our family home, the more productive my parents became — or so it seemed to me.

To accommodate an ever-expanding collection, we had on standby a Norwegian carpenter, who would arrive wielding his saw and hammer. Over the years these shelves climbed towards the high ceiling of the study, circumnavigated its walls and then at some point burst through the study door and down the length of the house, colonising the hallways along the way. Then a pull-down ladder was installed in the ceiling outside the study. Like Jack’s beanstalk, the ladder opened the way to a long-hidden, spacious attic with room for more books.

Even with such expansive accommodation, books would soon start appearing in unruly piles, prompting my parents to set forth on a methodical culling process. They would sort through the collection to select books that, despite years of service, could be packed off to the UNSW Book Fair to be savoured anew by others.

The 4000 titles donated to the State Library were part of my parents’ core tools of trade, regularly pulled from the shelves in the study as stimulus and support for their writing. They also represent major intellectual influences on my father’s writing since the publication of his first book in 1964.

You can examine their spines for a quick trip through twentieth century ideas, global politics and history, its revolutions, art, political philosophy, sociology, and you may be impressed that the author of The Lucky Country and other commentary on Australia drew inspiration so widely (for a collection of Donald Horne’s writing, see Nick Horne, ed., Donald Horne: Selected Writings, La Trobe University Press, 2017).


The Hornes’ study, 2014

The Hornes’ study, 2014, Karl Schwerdtfeger Photography, courtesy Julia Horne

Many of the books include my father’s annotations — paperclips, discrete dots, vertical lines and squiggly notations — which make it possible to trace some of what inspired his own social and political critique. They represent, in many ways, his scholarly footnotes.

Yet this constitutes only about a third of the books that passed through the family home during my parents’ married life. When my mother died in 2013, there were over 5000 titles in the study alone, with another 3500 kept elsewhere in the house. Over a period of 50 years, by a rough estimate, at least 2500 additional books came through the study, found a place on the bookshelves for a time and then at some point were respectfully moved on. A few were kept for sentimental reasons — in a cupboard I discovered my childhood copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr Seuss, its cover barely held together with stripy green vinyl tape, kept as a fond memento of the pleasures of parenthood. Books had to earn their place on the prime real estate of my parents’ bookshelves.

‘Library’ was not a term either of them used to refer to their book collection. More usual was the phrase, ‘I’ll just go to the study to look it up’, which offers a pre-internet picture of writers’ working relationships with study, books and ideas. Now that neither the study nor its creators exist, the term succinctly captures the purpose of these books, how they represented a wonderland of ideas to be gleaned, argued over and utilised. Within the beautiful glass cabinetry in the Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room, they have a new existence, not only as tokens of two past writing lives, but as inspiration for future generations who think that books and ideas matter.

Julia Horne is Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney and daughter of Donald and Myfanwy Horne (who wrote under the name of Myfanwy Gollan). Julia and her brother, Nick Horne, donated items from the study of their family home, including 4000 books, which now form part of the Donald and Myfanwy Horne Room to be used by Fellows of the Library.

This article first appeared in SL magazine winter 2018.