Our favourite books of all time


With the launch of the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 18 May 2015 inching ever closer, staff from Arts NSW and Screen NSW share some of their favourite books of all time.


Mary Darwell, Arts NSW Executive Director

The Boat, by Nam Lee

“I am drawn to the short story form – with its demands of precision and clarity from its authors. Of course, I keep returning to Alice Munro’s stories, but  The Boat by Nam Le made me catch my breath when I first read it. It is justifiably a highly awarded anthology. I’ve recently re-read this beautiful collection of absorbing, fully rounded, and compelling short stories.

“The short story of the title , ‘The Boat’, is a devastating story of loss, family and hope. It rewards lingering reading.”


Maureen Barron, Screen NSW Executive Director

The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson, by Robert Caro

“My favourite book is a series of books – Robert Caro’s absorbing biography of American president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Each of the four volumes stands alone as an outstanding work and together they surprise, captivate and engage like few other books or series I have ever read. I am impatiently awaiting the fifth volume. Every page of these books holds your attention as a description of a complex man in a complex world, which he navigates with skill, and a world that comes to life with details that impress. You won’t find a better example of biography than these books.

“All Robert Caro’s books are a joy to read and I am sorry when I reach the end of each volume. He is an accomplished writer and assiduous researcher.”


Marianna Southwick, Arts NSW Director, Infrastructure

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

“It’s an extraordinary family history/memoir, woven together via a collection of Japanese wood and ivory carvings (‘netsuke’). It is a fascinating and highly enjoyable read.”


Robert Ridley, Arts NSW Director, Arts Development and Investment

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household

“This 1930’s Geoffrey Household classic is one of my all-time favourites; the story of a nameless minor British aristocrat who attempts to assassinate an equally unnamed European dictator. Having escaped from the foreign power’s secret service, he returns to England where a relentless pursuit of him continues to a climactic conclusion in the green depths of a Dorset country lane way. I first read this as a young teenager, cover to cover and many times over. I rediscovered the book in 2013 through a 15 part serialised reading by Michael Jayston on BBC Radio 4.

“Listening to the book again after so many years, and having this read to me by a foreign voice, gave me a new and very different understanding and appreciation of the story’s structure; its layered complexity and Household’s understated writing style.”


Denise King, Arts NSW Manager, Arts Development and Investment – Regional Arts, Multi-arts, Music

The Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Keneally

“The book explores genetics and how we are shaped by DNA, and really made me think about where I come from in a different way – not just through the family tree. Turns out it’s Africa. And who would have thought mitochondrial DNA could be so interesting?”


Sam Wild, Arts NSW Manager, Arts Development and Investment – Visual Arts, Museums, Literature

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

“Among the authors I have most enjoyed reading over the past few years, Kate Grenville would have to stand out. I studied Grenville’s books at university and came back to them after an interval when I picked up The Secret River. I am impressed by Grenville’s capacity to fill the gap for me around Australia’s past by placing the experience and meaning of first contact at the fountainhead of our national history. She did so in a way that was utterly absorbing and which raised profound questions about our national identity and the nature of our relationship to the land. I have, since then, greatly enjoyed her thematically related novels, Sarah Thornhill and The Lieutenant.”


Angela Cecco, Arts NSW Manager, Arts Development and Investment – Major Performing Arts, Dance, Theatre

Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton

“This was my first experience of a Tim Winton book and I was completely transported and charmed by it. Winton just captures Australian experience so superbly. It is a wonderfully compelling story about the relationships that form us and it’s hard not to feel a little loss when you read the last word off the page knowing your time with the Lambs and the Pickles has come to an end.

“The book was adapted into a hugely successful and outstanding work for theatre by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo produced by Belvoir and Black Swan Theatre, which toured nationally and internationally to great acclaim.”


Susan Carroll, Arts NSW Policy Manager

Plenty, by Yottam Ottolenghi

“I adore Ottolenghi’s philosophy on food, on its abundance, its seasonality, its colour. That dance between simplicity and richness. Culture and its generosity of spirit permeate every dish. If life were to be lived with one source of food inspiration, Ottolenghi’s books would happily be it.”


Kim Spinks, Arts NSW Manager, Strategic Initiatives

Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser vs The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck

“For compulsive, and therefore by definition, promiscuous, readers there is never a ‘best’ book of all time but a ‘best’ book now. Currently for me, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel and Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days are fighting it out on my Kindle.

Kretser’s book should be required reading for anyone accumulating frequent flyer points as it inexorably forces us to confront the vast differences in the meaning of  ‘travel’ in the 21st century –travel for the tourist  with a choice and travel for those who, by circumstances, are forced to flee to alien places. Of the Erpenbeck, all I can say is that it challenges the conventional adage that a valuable life is necessarily a long one and plays with questions of fate. It is also a wonderful translation, and unlike so many contemporary historical novels, concise with every word to be relished. I like to think this is because Erpenbeck had a previous career in the theatre as a director and playwright.

And finally the book I am most looking forward to reading is Arts NSW’s very own Greg Snook’s forthcoming roman à clef – Remixed Relics!”


Stacey Warren, Arts NSW Manager, Infrastructure Development 

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

“Saramago’s Blindness is filled with characters and circumstances I still think about years after reading. It’s not only an unusually crafted and beautifully written story but also compelling, disturbing and, at times, terrifying. As the scenario unfolds (a blindness epidemic) we are forced to consider the frailty of the human condition and our society, and how serious flaws quickly emerge when ‘life’ is disrupted. At the same time, the author is able to draw out the strength of ‘ordinary people’ in desperate times and weaves in comedic moments in otherwise horribly bleak circumstances.


Clare Nadas, Arts NSW Manager, Policy and Partnerships

Do androids dream of electric sheep? By Phillip K Dick

“The best of sci fi – this story, and other works by this author, immerse the reader in an incredibly persuasive possible near future. His insights into what makes us human and the blurred boundaries between reality and perception are wonderful.”


Sharni Jones, Arts NSW Senior Aboriginal Cultural Development Officer, Strategic Initiatives 

M by Peter Robb

Caravaggio, or rather Michelangelo Merisi, was a wicked, rebellious human being, but undoubtedly an artistic genius who transformed the religious art world in Italy. M is the story of the artist, taking the reader to challenging depths, questioning social conventions and art practice as the violent life of the artist is unravelled. A compelling read, rather than a biography.

I read this book whilst travelling through Europe in my mid-twenties and it was a great companion with the colour plates as I was able to discover the original artworks in famous galleries and cathedrals whilst on my own ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. The interplay of light and the sophistication of Caravaggio’s work is mesmerising.

Caravaggio is one of my favourite Italian artists, equal to the famous Titian. The book may be controversial, but seeing many of original art works was indeed a life changing experience as an emerging curator.


Arts NSW is proud to support the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 




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Published: 6 May 2015