The Shock of Recognition: the books and music that have inspired me

Barry Jones
Biography, Books, Music Criticism
Sydney: Allen and Unwin 2016. 412 pp. Paperback
ISBN 9781741759662
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2016

Barry’s open house: a classic’s classics.

A visit to a colleague’s house will often bring you face to face with their books and music, sometimes on display, sometimes stacked haphazardly throughout rooms. A window into their interests and influences, a scan of their collection can help find common ground, or not, as the case may be. Barry Jones’ latest book, The Shock of Recognition, gives us the opportunity to visit his house, a peek through the music and literature that shaped his life and continues to inspire him.

Barry Jones

Barry Jones

“How much time do I have left? A hundred days? A thousand? If I knew I was going to die next week but could be taken to see The Marriage of Figaro tonight, would I go? Absolutely.”

Now in his 80s, Jones has spent much of his life in the public spotlight. Our first intellectual celebrity, he shot to fame in TV quiz show ‘Pick A Box’ during the 1960s. A career in politics followed, notably as Bob Hawke’s Science Minister from 1983 to 1990. He’s written several books, and published his biography, A Thinking Reed, a decade ago. Jones was surprised by the response of readers to the lists of great works he included in that book. The Shock of Recognition expands on those lists, offering a highly personal commentary on his selection of great works of literature and music.

Jones begins by making the case for his devotion to these works, his quest to share the extraordinary and the beautiful, to encourage an abundant life of reading and listening. While the book is dominated by commentary on the great literature on his bookshelves (Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, Tolstoy), there’s more music mentioned in the text. It’s music we learn that makes Jones vulnerable. For him, it is an adventure, with ever rising expectations. “Progression from a nursery song to folk music, popular song, gospel or country and western involves increasing complexity: going further, to sonatas, concertos, symphonies, chamber music or opera, jazz or Indian ragas, involves far more.”

The Shock of Recognition  takes us into the world that Jones has spent much time considering. He listens deeply, citing numerous versions of his favourite works. Bach receives special attention. For Jones, Bach is a transcendent force, “the greatest creative artist in Western civilisation”. To encourage the hesitant to explore further, he lists 50 works, ranked by accessibility.

While recordings of Bach’s violin concertos by the Australian Chamber Orchestra are included, Australian musicians and composers (and writers) rarely feature. Books by two Australian authors, both Nobel Laureates, Patrick White (Voss) and J M Coetzee (Diary of a Bad Year) are mentioned.  Australian composers have a special section featuring Felix Werder, George Dreyfus, Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale, Chris Dench, Andrew Ford, Elena Kats-Chernin and Brett Dean. Richard Mills is mentioned in the chapter on opera. The other notable feature of the book (and presumably the Jones house) is the absence of popular music, so nothing by Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, The Beatles, The Necks or Gurrumul.

The Shock of Recognition is a distinctive book.  It’s very personal, sometimes descriptive, often passionate and occasionally comic. Its paragraph on Arvo Part ends with the confession “The closest I ever came to Part was standing next to him at a urinal, but that is mere reportage, not commentary.” Jones is unique. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see another book like this and we can thank him for inviting us into his home to share his pleasures.

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