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The Songlines

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  6,082 ratings  ·  368 reviews
In this extraordinary book, Bruce Chatwin has adapted a literary form common until the eighteenth century though rare in ours; a story of ideas in which two companions, traveling and talking together, explore the hopes and dreams that animate both them and the people they encounter. Set in almost uninhabitable regions of Central Australia, The Songlines asks and tries to a ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 1st 1988 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1986)
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This is a book that is a personal response to whatever it is for white people to think about nomadic peoples with layers of meanings. It seemed to me to be a very honest book - the person telling the story does not try to make himself seem better than he is.

I had never heard of songlines before reading this book - the fact that I've lived in Australia for most of my life and did not know this perhaps says as much about me and as much about the life of a white person in Australia as it does about
Despite the title this isn't really a book about the Australian outback, it is another book about Bruce Chatwin. We journey in search of him through the fictions he put up as defences. Everything else is background.

I read this and was utterly impressed by it when I was a teenager. If I was to give this book a rating today it would be a very low one, but possibly my reasons for this could justify rating it very highly as well (view spoiler)
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Feb 26, 2013 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Ultimate Reading List - Travel
There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--b ...more
The Songlines is, on the surface, an auto-biographical travel narrative. Under the surface, it's none of these things and so much more. The door in is that the "Bruce" of the book may or may not be the Bruce who is writing. The narrative Bruce's clumsy attempts to interrogate the Australian aboringine's sacred knowledge smacks of neo-colonialistic cultural tourism. Is the real Bruce Chatwin really this gormless or is he positioning his narrative Bruce to point out the problems of such a quest? T ...more
Aug 14, 2008 Beth rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: suckers
Recommended to Beth by: a travel class
As I wandered through some special place no one else ever gets to see, I passed a beautiful woman wearing a sheer top that revealed her round breasts and small, pert nipples. She looked seductively at me and licked her lips. I nodded politely, making my way toward a tall man standing by himself.

"Wait!" My super-elite companion stopped me. "That man is the KING OF THE UNIVERSE. He hates everyone! Nothing impresses him. The last white man who attempted to talk to him -- WELL! The King sliced him
Terri Jacobson
Bruce Chatwin is an Englishman who has traveled widely, and he has especially studied nomads and tribes. In this book he travels to Australia to study the Aboriginals. In Australia, the nomadic Aboriginals have songs related to almost every feature in the landscapes they travel through. To learn these songs is to know directions to everything from water holes to hunting grounds to the location of other tribes. This book was written in 1987, and at that time there were officials who wanted to bui ...more
Feb 14, 2012 Shovelmonkey1 rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people without the £860 airfare to Sydney
Recommended to Shovelmonkey1 by: a previous encounter with On the Black Hill
I am picky when it comes to travel literature. The curious thing about my pickiness when it comes to travel books is that I don't like to use travel literature as a way of broadening my horizons - I like to read it to narrow my world view and back up what I already know.

To clarify, because I suspect I have just made a strange and confusing statement, I only normally read travel literature which deals with places I have already visited because I want a back up opinion from the author. What did t
I am in love with the structure of this book; initially, it describes a series of encounters with black and white Australians living in the nearly uninhabitable Central Australia. Chatwin's guide on this journey is an Australian of Russian descent, one of the many striking figures we meet - and I must add here that Chatwin was accused of the same sin as Kapuściński, apparently taking too much liberty with the degree of 'literariness' of his reportages.

Chatwin quite delicately (at least to my eye
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
The wandering words of a wandering writer.

The "songlines" were a sort of Aboriginal GPS. The people could find their way unerringly across vast territories simply by "singing" the ancient stories of the Dreamtime creatures. The stories contained landmarks, and were meant to be sung at a walking pace of about 4 mph. Thus, as he walked and sang, the singer encountered the sacred sites and knew he was following the correct "line" to his destination. As I came to understand the concept, I was moved
Matthew Hittinger
I'm curious that Chatwin considered this book fiction; perhaps by today's standards we'd brand it "creative nonfiction" the "creative" part being perhaps invented or doctored dialogue, some bending of facts to get at a more truthful narrative, etc. As a travel document, though, it maintains Chatwin's compressed ability to sketch a character or paint a landscape in a few deft strokes. And the book continues what appears to be his life-long thesis: that humans are meant to be in motion, to be migr ...more
Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending th ...more
If I was given a choice of 3 people to invite for dinner from any age, Bruce Chatwin would be one. I only wish I could sit down (probably in a pub) and watch him drink a pint and tell stories of his travels. He writes in such a compassionate way about the people he comes across in his travels, he has a way of explaining and understanding histories and events that is so intriging to me. This book is so loved and well worn...I underlined almost the entire copy. It is not only about the aboriginal ...more
Maria Grazia
Un po' romanzo, un po' saggio, un po' autobiografia, un po' libro di appunti e riflessioni.
Attraverso il contatto, privo di pregiudizi e completamente disinvolto, con gli aborigeni australiani Chatwin ripensa allo sviluppo dell'uomo moderno, ne definisce le tappe, ne riconosce l'aggressività e gli archetipi.
Zeppo di spunti per riflettere sulla nostra vita, impossibili da cogliere tutti alla prima lettura, e quindi da riprendere in mano spesso e volentieri, e sarebbe bellissimo che ne esistesse u
I had been wracking my brains for a way to introduce the topic of Australian Explorers to my students that was respectful of Aboriginal history and culture when I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines on my TBR…

The new Australian Curriculum requires that students learn something about the courageous European explorers who mapped this country and its waters – but the topic needs to be studied in the context that of course the indigenous people of this country alre
Quando guardo una Moleskine mi chiedo come un libricino, apparentemente insignificante, possa esercitare una tale malìa. Come possa riuscire a tirare fuori una vena artistica anche dai pezzi di legno. A indurre la gente a disegnare, scrivere, osservare ed elaborare. Come possa, per incanto, rendere brillanti gli ottusi.
“Le vie dei canti” sta alle Moleskine come l'uovo sta alla gallina.
Non si capisce se le Moleskine devono parte del loro fascino al libro di Chatwin o se il libro di Chatwin non s
“Gli Antenati, che avevano creato il mondo cantandolo, disse, erano stati poeti nel significato originale di poiesis, e cioè «creazione». Nessun aborigeno poteva concepire che il mondo creato fosse in qualche modo imperfetto. La vita religiosa di ognuno di essi aveva un unico scopo: conservare la terra com’era e come doveva essere. L’uomo che andava in walkabout compiva un viaggio rituale: calcava le orme del suo Antenato. Cantava le strofe dell’Antenato senza cambiare una parola né una nota – e ...more
I am a horrible reader sometimes. I read to just read, not because I like what I am reading, which at this point in my life defeats the purpose of it all. I am getting better at putting down boring books, mainly cause I use the library and I don't have to feel guilty about not finishing them because I didn't invest any money in the first place. But school kind of killed that for me and I hate not reading something that I started, no matter how boring it is. Two books I picked up from the library ...more
Peggy Page
Once in a while through serendipity, we come across a wonderful book, by one of those authors we have always meant to read. So Bruce Chatwin was to me and so was The Songlines waiting for me on the library shelf, an overlooked wonder not checked out since the Clinton Administration. I read some of the reviews here in Goodreads and I marvel at the parochialism of readers. Chatwin is a philosopher-traveler, an astute and open-minded observer and an elegant writer. Yes, the book wanders but not tha ...more
Apr 24, 2010 Mark rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: travel
I searched high and low for this book and finally found it in a bookstore in Melbourne last month. You'd think it would be easier to find in Australia. Chatwin is right up there with Theroux and Thubron in my book as far as travel writers go, and there are so few books to remember him by.

The Songlines is Chatwin's search for the ancestral mythology of Aboriginal Australia. Songlines are maplines across Australia that carry the story of the original animal in tribal song across the country. That
Chatwin ha sempre rappresentato per me il sogno la fuga, l'evasione in posti lontani, l'idea stessa di viaggio.
Con "Le vie dei canti" ho viaggiato con Chatwin e Arkady per le zone Australiane, da Alice Springs a Middle Bore alla scoperta del popolo aborigeno, dei loro usi e costumi, delle loro tradizioni, del loro amore e rispetto per la Madre Terra.
Percorrendo le vie dei canti, anche solo virtualmente, mi sono trovata a vivere in un mondo fantastico, tra sogno e realtà, un mondo che mi ha invog
I recently re-read Chatwin's book, which takes on a special resonance for me given that I have spent twenty or so years working on Indigenous issues in Canada and, for the past two years, in Australia.

I have always admired Chatwin's erudition and observational skills, and his prose is at times luminous.
I was mightily impressed by The Songlines when I read it a couple of decades ago.

This time around, while in some ways it remains revelatory, it also seemed slightly mean-spirited and aloof. There
Jim O'Donnell
Another incredible Chatwin read. Again, the writing style is stunningly beautiful. This time Chatwin goes to the heart of Australia seeking to understand his own restless nature – with which he burdens all humanity. Part essay, part travelogue and all dubious anthropology and rhetorical circles. The “Bruce” of the book is clearly not Bruce Chatwin the writer. “Bruce” is a clumsy westerner with imperialistic notions trying to understand the blacks. It’s a fascinating literary tool. Through Bruce’ ...more
Lazarus P Badpenny Esq
“I had the presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen the notebooks. I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.”

Chatwin pursues his quest for an understanding of the nomadic instinct to the Australian outback and
Anders Kousholt
Going with Chatwin on his journey through Australia is an enlightening experience. He sets out to gather knowledge about the Songlines: that invisible map of paths and sacred sights that traverse Australia from North to south, left by the Dreamtime ancestors at the beginning of time, marking their routes and movements as they sang the world into being. To this day, it is the Songlines that determine the lives of indigenous Australians. It is a resevoir of knowledge to guide their decisions and d ...more
Written a generation ago, in the 1980's, The Songlines has achieved considerable fame in the world of travel literature. Along with In Patagonia, this is one of Bruce Chatwin's two best-known works. Chatwin was an English travel writer in the mold of the highly educated, multi-lingual amateur, who could write about all manner of things historical, cultural, anthropological, architectural, linguistic and so on, with great eloquence and wit, and a dash of devil-may-care daring thrown in for good m ...more
Bryn Hammond
Jan 06, 2015 Bryn Hammond rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Bryn by: Julie Bozza
Shelves: world-history
This kept reminding me of Jack Weatherford’s Savages and Civilization, which is my handbook on nomads and the city. Both books scattered, personal and flawed, but the testaments of inquiring minds. If you follow nomadology you won’t want to miss them.
Thomas Isern
Returning to this work after a lapse of years, I rediscovered why I never finished it before. There is, of course, the problem that Chatwin's biographer, Shakespeare, has disclosed the considerable faults of Chatwin as traveler and as narrator. That is an issue for serious readers, but I also share the pique of casual readers who are perplexed when Chatwin begins the document dump from his commonplace books. I don't think I'm perplexed by this, though. Chatwin has written what is, in several way ...more
Russell George
I absolutely loved this for the first 200 pages. Chatwin, a sort of literary ethnologist, aims to understand Aboriginal song lines. In Aboriginal mythology, song lines mark the journeys taken by the first animals – the first kangaroo, the first hyena, the first cat etc. – upon their creation. The song lines essentially map the whole continent. When aboriginal people go ‘walkabout’, they are retracing these journeys, essentially a pilgrimage to the land that sustains them.
Chatwin is escorted by
Sometimes conjuring up the memory of an exotic locale in past reading is all that is needed for me to want to click away at five stars. Songlines is one of those books. I read this shortly after it was published and was thoroughly fascinated. I think to thoroughly appreciate this book one needs to have spent time in nature, unattached to civilization. No devices, no GPS, no phone, no map. No nothing. The only option one would have would be to tune into their surroundings and in effect that is wh ...more
'Put it this way,' he said. 'Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and ask the Aboriginal with you, "What's the story there?" or "Who's that?" The chances are he'll answer "Kangaroo" or "Budgerigar" or "Jew Lizard", depending on which Ancestor walked that way.'
'And the distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song?'

'Songlines' is about Aboriginal culture and Chatwin's experiences travelling through Australia. The book is beautifully written an
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Charles Bruce Chatwin was an English novelist and travel writer. He won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel On the Black Hill (1982). In 1972, Chatwin interviewed the 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of the area of South America called Patagonia, which she had painted. "I've always wanted to go there," Bruce told her. "So have ...more
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“As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less 'aggressive' than sedentary ones.

There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a 'leveller' on which the 'fit' survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.

The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The 'dictators' of the animal kingdom are those who live in an ambience of plenty. The anarchists, as always, are the 'gentlemen of the road'.”
“A journey is a fragment of Hell.” 10 likes
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