“The mode of being of the new intellectuals can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, 'permanent persuader' and not just a simple orator...” (Antonio Gramsci)
Bob Gould, proprietor of the renowned Gould’s Book Arcade in Newtown, Sydney, died on the 22 May 2011 at age 74. The following are some reflections on some of my personal encounters with Bob at his iconic bookstore.
I still remember walking into Gould’s Book Arcade for the first time in mid-2000. I had beheld it frightfully from a distance for about six months from several angles: moving past on the 428 bus along King Street in Newtown, a quick glance in as I trudged past on foot, encircling it in conversation with my new friends in the political economy program at Sydney University. For a wide-eyed eighteen year-old who had just arrived from interstate to Sydney, Gould’s Book Arcade came to stand in for everything frightening and romantic about this new city – big and crowded, rather chaotic, bearing a freight of history and its secrets, always intriguing and alluring, and pretty dusty. To cross that line from the pavement off King Street and into the bookshop was for me both a symbolic and physical act; Gould’s would become for this perpetually curious bibliophile and political novice an icon of everything that I would come to love about living in Sydney.
From my frequent visits to Gould’s since that time, I came to know its proprietor Bob Gould a little better. In conversation he was relentlessly witty and critical, often adding historical nuance and injecting a little bit of political grunt to any discussion about the state of affairs in Australia and globally. Having achieved some visibility as a leftist bookstore operator, activist and commentator over a long time, Bob was like the embodiment of those small victories and big defeats experienced in the social struggles that preceded my generation. Yet unlike many others of his milieu, he neither traded in the politics of defeat and compromise that presently characterises much of the left (e.g. the Australian Labor Party, about which Bob had plenty to say!), nor that flaccid form of cynicism masquerading as critique that is pervasive amongst those who have been so scarred by defeat that they are intent on dousing the fires of those who might pick up the mantle anew. For the young political activists and radicals who have experienced the torrent of Bob’s political discourse, as I have on many occasions, the experience can only be described as a pedagogical one.
Yet there was also another side to Bob that I had the privilege to know. In 2009, I embarked on a PhD in Cultural Studies at the neighbouring University of Sydney with a project on the relationship between religious institutions and the hegemonic liberal, market-oriented culture. The revelation of my research interests to Bob ensured that many of my Saturday nights – and sometimes both Friday and Saturday nights – would be spent in long discussions with the veteran about the history and politics of religion. Often they would begin with a recount of his experiences and upbringing in the tradition of Irish-Catholicism, an institution which like the Labor Party, Bob saw himself estranged from but never completely disavowed despite being an atheist. I remember late one wet and cold Saturday night in 2010 when he had saved a long op-ed from the Sydney Morning Herald with an appraisal of Pope Benedict XVI's politics, insisting on reading it to me in its entirety and interspersing the paragraphs with his own critical commentary; I didn’t have the guts to interrupt the master and to let him know that I was in urgent need of the restroom. He showed plenty of interest in my fascination with radical political theology and the history of Anabaptism as a counter-establishment movement, and we shared a mutual appreciation for the recent articulation of Marxism and Catholicism by cultural critic Terry Eagleton, with the latter speaking to Bob’s own experiences and cultural history, I sensed. In another instance, I had managed to track down copies of Eagleton’s early works The Body as Language and New Left Church (when Eageleton was still Terence rather than Terry) on the second level of Gould’s massive (and sometimes precarious) stacks, only to be sent up again when trying to pay so that I could retrieve another copy for the old bookseller himself.
Bob passed away on the 22 May 2011, news I only heard about the following morning from a young friend (who incidentally and perhaps fittingly, is himself a Catholic and Marxist). I must admit I have not yet come to terms with the loss of this man, a cultural institution, an organic intellectual and teacher who longed for a world more just. What will Sydney be like without Bob Gould? I haven't been around for that long, but I have no doubt that it will be a little less radical, a little less committed and a whole lot less interesting.
Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine, et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat in pace, Comrade.
Click here for the Sydney Morning Herald report on Bob Gould's death
Click here for some of Bob Gould's political writings on issues ranging from literary culture to communism.