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The Songlines

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  9,812 ratings  ·  664 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 (first published 1987)
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“He knew he was dying and it enraged him. One by one, he had watched the young men go, or go to pieces. Soon there would be no one: either to sing the songs or to give blood for ceremonies.

In aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.”

Bruce Chatwin was a highly regarded English writer and traveller with a deep curiosity about nomadic people. He was fascinated by the idea of songlines around the world that tell the story of t
Dec 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
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)
Manuel Antão
Dec 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 1988
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Dreaming Tracks: "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin

(Original Review, 1988-05-15)

I’ve been reading “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin for the past couple of days, which I’m really enjoying at about the halfway point. It’s a travel book, I suppose, about Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian Outback learning of Aboriginal culture and their belief in ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’, or “to the Aboriginals as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ o
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Oct 15, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Many years ago, I read Chatwin's In Patagonia, and found it, I suppose, hard work and a little tiresome. And so I waited a long time before I picked The Songlines off my shelf. I had looked through some reviews before reading it - and found that they were polarising. In very general terms, those who enjoy a more philosophical or whimsical read tended to rate high and enjoy it; those who had read it to learn details about the Aboriginal culture were disappointed. On this basis, with my antipathy ...more
181st book of 2020.

Chatwin has lost his readership over the years, which I find interesting; I was reading about it the other night. Firstly, Chatwin’s blend of fiction and non-fiction raised a few issues when he was first publishing. My copy of The Songlines as “Travel”—this implies a level of truth: as soon as we read something that isn’t “Fiction”, we jump to presume that it is indeed fact. I read a funny anecdote about another one of Chatwin’s novels: he meets a girl in it and she is describ
Oct 24, 2014 rated it did not like it
I had great expectations about this book, it is one of the favorites of my wife and for years it stood temptingly staring at me in our library. But I'm afraid it turned out to be a disappointment. As in "In Patagonia" Chatwin reports about one of his journeys, a meandering quest, not in Fireland this time but in Australia where he went looking for the key to the Aboriginal-culture. This is a quite interesting topic of course, and the information he gives about the Songlines and everything that's ...more
Jul 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Rosemary Atwell
Jul 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: re-reads
Rereading ‘The Songlines’ after thirty years is a moving experience. I had forgotten how beguiling Chatwin’s writing is and how his unreliable narration perfectly suits the type of tale that he wishes to tell. His characters are Dickensian, his protagonist both charmingly arch and ferociously erudite. His death, a mere two years after publication, came as a shock, as did Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography (still one of the best that I’ve read).

The book’s middle and latter sections - quotations, mu
Dec 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
James Henderson
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
Jun 03, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: travel
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
Matthew Hittinger
Jul 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)
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
Gijs Grob
The Aborigines' way of navigating, communicating and negotiating by 'Songlines' is absolutely intruiging, and I thank this book for shedding some light on this subject. For example, between chapter 14 and 15 there's a beautiful creation myth. I wish Chatwin had written more text like that.

However, most of the book is not about the songlines, but about Chatwin himself, eating and drinking with Australians, most of which have nothing to do with the Aborigines and their plight. Chatwin paints a vi
Chris Kaeff
Aug 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book blew my mind. I never considered geography as song, until I stumbled through the bush recreating the Dreamtime with this chap. You'll never glance an odd shaped rock or peculiar growth again, without conducting a epic myth in song, attempting to explain in language a landscape we are all foreign to but responsible for. ...more
Robert Wechsler
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is three things: a travel book about part of Australia’s outback, with a focus on Aborigines; a quest for what “songlines” are (they are a central part of Aboriginal culture); and a series of italicized quotations and stories that involve such things as the Beast that is at the center of our fears. The quest was what attracted me to the book, and what I liked best. The travel book is pretty good, too. Only the italicized chapters let me down, partly because they seemed to pull the book ...more
Jan 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Bob Newman
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
a wizard in Oz

You can never tell with Bruce Chatwin what actually happened, what he made up, or why he did so. But in every case, you're going to wind up with an eminently readable book full of ideas and intelligent musings. He was definitely an excellent writer, a wise observer, and a man of empathy and imagination. I don't think he could claim to be an anthropologist though, so in case you are looking for a book that would accurately set out the predicament of Australia's desert aborigines and
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
Nov 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Chatwin invests everything in this moving account of his research into the Songlines of Australia. Any relevant experience or research that might add to his examination of man's inclination towards a life of migration versus the sedentary life if carefully included. Going back to Cain and Abel, myths and archeology point out that ever since man first pursued a sedentary life and created the villages and monuments we prize in museums, there has continued to exist the nomadic people who just may b ...more
Joseph Mckenna
Nov 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Seldom is there a book that strikes at the core of your being. Chatwin uses the "Songlines" of Australian aboriginal culture to explore an intellectual, philosophical and metaphysical world of the human condition. The book is wildly original; simultaneously a thoroughly entertaining travelogue and also an almost stream of consciousness exploration of history, psychology, natural history, and more. Truly an instant favorite... ...more
Bryn Hammond
Nov 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-lils
Beautiful earth Song...
Yigal Zur
Sep 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
amazing journey. must
Sairam Krishnan
May 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With certain books, you are only halfway through and you know you have to read them again. As I read Songlines, I knew I'd be reading it several times. It spoke to a version of me I had forgotten about, and I'm grateful.

There's not much to be said about such a book that hasn't been said before, but I was struck by all the possibilities it brought forth, all these paths the mind could take from almost any page.

If I understood the book as it was meant to be, I think that would make the old explor
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The book is very awesome.
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All About Books: Group Read (April/May)- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin 18 63 May 01, 2014 07:42AM  

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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'.”
“Sluggish and sedentary peoples, such as the Ancient Egyptians-- with their concept of an afterlife journey through the Field of Reeds-- project on to the next world the journeys they failed to make in this one.” 12 likes
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