The Grass Library Makes Us Think About Who Animals Truly Are
David Brooks' book quietly challenges how we reflect on the lives of non-humans.
Posted May 4, 2020
"The Grass Library portrays the author's relationship with his dog, four sheep, and myriad other animals in the home he shares with his partner in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. This collection of essays–with its lyrical language, its honesty and vulnerability, its charm and wit–will delight and inspire all animal lovers, and especially those who rescue animals."
I recently read a wonderful book called The Grass Library: Essays by award-winning Australian poet, essayist, and novelist David Brooks.1 Among the numerous reasons I couldn't put it down once I began reading, in addition to beautiful prose, is this quote: "We impose so many wounds upon the animals we think of as our pets or companions: taking them away from their mothers so early–barely weaned, if that–is only the beginning." (Page 15) There are many more like it. Mr. Brooks answered a few questions about his wonderful new book and how other animals walk into his heart and into his prose.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Grass Library?
David Brooks: Writing for me has always been a way of finding, of working things out. I began The Grass Library at a time of great personal change. I’d had a diagnosis – Multiple Sclerosis – which made me think hard and decisively about the rest of my life. I resigned from my university position, found myself, at Teya’s prompting, moving onto a tiny ex-farm in the mountains outside Sydney. We were already vegan and involved in animal causes, so it was no surprise that within weeks we had our first rescued animals, a pair of sheep no less confused to be with us than we were to be with them. We all embarked upon a steep learning curve.
I started to write the stories of what was happening around me, the non-human stories, with all their tumult and pain and discovery and wonder. As a means of keeping track of my learning, my thinking. At some point – I think when, getting into the car after visiting the post office, the title The Grass Library first came to me – I realised I had a book. Your life is an experiment. You should write down what you discover and experience, including the mistakes you make, if only in the hope you save someone else from having to start from scratch.
Bekoff: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
Brooks: Deeply. They’re one of its subjects. I spent many years writing, teaching, and writing about literature – about books themselves but also about language, literary theory, cultural theory. These things give me a particular take upon the animals I now live with and advocate for (I also advocate for kangaroos, though I don’t live with them). It’s enabled me, for example, to see and write about the postmodern and post-colonial conditions (not necessarily the best terms) of non-human animals in our time. But this being with animals has also helped me reassess my earlier life. When I left the university I took my personal library quite literally from my office to a farm shed I’d converted and set it up there, with my desk beside it, right in the middle of a paddock. Hence the book’s title. It was a very symbolic act, as it’s turned out. For decades I’d thought of myself as a poet, novelist, and short-story writer. I’m still those things, though my principal subjects nowadays are animals. It now seems that the whole earlier writing life was a preparation for this.
Bekoff: Who is your intended audience?
Brooks: A broad one. People might engage with the book more rapidly if they have an interest in the lives and wellbeing of animals, but I’ve been delighted by the number of readers who wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves that way who’ve found themselves drawn into it, sometimes deeply. The official story is that it’s for animal rights advocates, rescuers, carers, animal studies people (students, teachers), etc., but I’ve had poet and philosopher friends who’ve loved it, along with people who’d probably never willingly pick up a book of poetry or philosophy or animal rights. It occurs to me that people who are thinking of taking on a pet, or who have trouble seeing their pets as people, might get something out of it.
Bekoff: What are some of the topics you weave into the text and what are some of your major messages?
Brooks: A recent reviewer said the book "chips away at the self-serving denials and falsehoods with which we think and write animals out of, rather than into, being." I like that. That is what I try to do. The book begins and ends with actual animal friends and never strays very far away from them and my relationship with them, but along the way, it looks at how language holds non-humans at bay, at how so many of our concepts do this, how our systems of value are designed against them. Take the accusation of anthropomorphism, for example, so often used to deride our arguments of non-human thought and emotions. I argue that barbarity itself begins with the thought that we’re so different from the creatures we live amongst that we can’t know or even guess how they feel.
Anthropomorphism is central to what we call empathy, and since empathy’s fundamental to compassion, when we decry anthropomorphism we’re part of that repression of empathy that’s fundamental to the horrific abuse of animals which has always scarred our civilization. But the take on anthropomorphism’s just one of many. One reader wrote to say her favorite passage was on the book’s second page, where, talking about our shift to veganism, I write of the "unexpected pleasure – relief – in the thought that just by not doing something we were saving lives."
Bekoff: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
Brooks: It’s warmer, I’m told. The problems and paradoxes it engages with are embodied; they arise from the lives of real animals – Charlie the dog, and the sheep Jonathan, Henry, and Orpheus-Pumpkin. In a way, with a number of other non-humans (wild ducks, a snake, rats) they’re my co-authors, as much in charge of the narrative as I am. They walk into my library; they walk into my sentences; they illustrate the points I make; I illustrate the points they make. I think readers are drawn to them, make friends as the book progresses. Reviewers agree it’s a book that makes you think but in a gentle and disarming way.
Bekoff: Are you hopeful that things will change for the better as people (re)connect with other animals?
Brooks: In some ways, they’re changing already. Ten years ago we were still explaining to people – very often restauranteurs – what vegan meant. But now we’re seeing a kind of vegan arrival. Large supermarket chains have plant-based sections; fast-food giants are touting meat-free hamburgers. Some of this is fashion, of course, and we can only hope it lasts, but a lot is based on a growing concern for animals. Even the moguls seem to be seeing this as the way of the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been harrowing but even it has been stimulating some re-thinking of carnism. In some places, the demand for vegan products has grown 200 percent during the lockdown. And it’s not all stomach-led. I’m still haunted by the horrific loss of other animals in the mega-fires which devastated so much Australian forest this summer, but I’m conscious also of the massive outpouring of sympathy toward animals that followed and the tide of money that, for a time, anyway, flowed toward animal causes. It’s sad such reconnections with other creatures around us have to be cradled in such catastrophe, and that we’re making those reconnections so close to midnight, as it were – and I’m not sure how much reduction of animal suffering there’s been (rather the opposite) – but there are encouraging signs.
Bekoff: What are some of your current projects?
Brooks: I can’t stop writing about animals. Initially, I thought of The Grass Library as a stand-alone. Now it seems the foundation of a tetralogy, or sextet – the number keeps growing. Already there’s been a suite of essays on Derrida and animals, Derrida’s Breakfast, and a larger collection of essays, Animal Dreams, will appear next year. I’ve almost completed Turin (Approaching Animals), a book of meditations which begins with Nietzsche’s famous encounter with a horse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. I’ve also nearly completed a suite of essays on Australia’s horrendous treatment of kangaroos, A Roo Battue, and a kind of sequel to The Grass Library itself.
David G. Brooks is an Australian poet, essayist, short-fiction writer, novelist, editor, teacher and advocate for non-human animals. Born in Canberra, he has lived at different times in Greece, the United States, Canada, France and, more recently, Slovenia. His work is widely anthologised, has been translated into many languages, and has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. He is currently Honorary Associate Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. He was the 2015/16 Australia Council Fellow in Literature, and from 1999 until 2018 co-editor of Southerly, the premier journal of Australian literature. His latest works are Derrida’s Breakfast (a suite of essays on non-human animals in poetry and philosophy: 2016),Napoleon’s Roads (short fiction: 2016), and most recently The Grass Library, an account of his life with rescued animals in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. His wife is the Slovenian/Australian writer/activist Teya Pribac. They are vegan.