New Zealand’s 51 Best Books

Published in The Dominion in January 1992

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

This selection is a New Zealand response to 101 Best Australian Books, complied by John Arnold and Peter Pierce for November’s Bulletin magazine. Their selection was influenced by the personal inclinations of the compilers. within constraints to produce a representative listing in terms of subject, chronological spread and gender. They were limited to one book per author and appear to have ruled out books with multiple authors such The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. The Bulletin list is in alphabetical order. This is grouped into loose chronological order by subject (rather than by publication date).

I have added some later thoughts in italics, and some additional books at the end – most of which has been published since the original list. Some current writers have written very good books since 1992, but the general rule has been not to replace their earlier works.

1. George Grey, Polvnesian Mythology (Maori edition 1854, English 1855) The source from which we learned so much of the Maori .mythology which has enriched the culture. The best of modern myths is Patricia Grace’s Potiki, in which the Maori story is fashioned into an account of tbe modern rural Maori and the pressures of development.

2. John Salmon, Native Trees of New Zealand (1980) Trees are the crowning glory of the land. and this richly illustrated book presents the crowd in all its magnificence.

3. Ian Pool, Te Iwi Maori (1991). The social history with the longest sweep from before the Maori arrived here through to 2011. A difficult technical book, but ta tribute to the quality New Zealand work in statistics over the years.

4. Henry Williams, Dictionary of New Zealand Maori (1844 and revised) A book of such significance that it has gone through authos and revisions and still remains the basic reference on the written Maori language. Brigg’s valuable dictionary, suitable for the home library, is based upon it.

5.Raymond Firth, The Economics of the New Zealand Maori (1929, revised 1959) A book whose authority on the early Maori economy still stands today. Important also for inrtroiducing the ‘gift relationship’ into English and so it’s an international milestome in economic anthropology.

6. John Beaglehole, The Discovery of New Zealand (1939 and 1961). Beaglehole’s scholarly work was indefatigable, and the results are now part of every school child’s heritiage. An alternative could be The Exploration of the Pacific, The Life of Captain James Cook or The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks.

7. Ann Salmond, Two Worlds (1981) Just published it is the punt of the selection, a book which reminds us that the European was as ignorant, superstitious and primitive as the Maori at the time of first contact. So we have both developed – sort of together. Its underlying message is that it is not just a matter of respecting other cultures but of trying to understand them. A justified punt in retrospect. The second book of this trilogy Between Worlds was published in 1997. We await the third.

8. Patricia Burns, Te Rauparaha: A New Perspective (1980) The Maori Napoleon had a bad press till this book which brings him to life as one of our greatest statesmen for all his turbulent youth.

9. Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (1987) The right book on the right topic at the right time, Recording the most important day in the history of New Zealand, 147 years later it became a part of establishing that day into tbe nation’s public conscience.

10. Frederick Maning, Old New Zealand (1862) An exuberant mixture of autobiography, racy anecdotes, and descriptions of Maori history and customs, which also contained a political message of the conflict between the Maori and European world.

11. Mary Barker, Station Life in New Zealand (1870) Enthusiasm for station life found this compilation of letters to a sister provides both documentary and a sort of comedy of manners.

12. Samuel Butler Erewhon (1872) A satirical utopian tract, physiclly set in New Zealand and informed by Butler’s Canterbury aperiences, despite being written in London.

13. Dick Scott, Ask the Mountain: The Story of Parihaka (1975) Perhaps Hazel Riseborough’s Days of Darkness: Taranaki 1878-1884 may be more historically correct but Scott’s book drew Zealand’s attention to one of the worst outrages in a colonial past resplendent with such outrages. Written with all the flair and pasison of our best crusading journalism.

14. Russell Stone, Makers of Fortune: A Business Community and Its Fall (1973) New Zealand’s best business history and a rollicking good yarn. No hagiography, but like it was, as Auckland speculators of the late 19th century destroyed themselves (and the economy).

15. William Pember Reeves Experiments in New Zealand and Australia (1902) That, or The Long White Cloud our first great history book – but history books tend to fade, while State Experiments still has the interest and freshness of the exciting reforms which occurred at the turn of the 19th to 20th century.

16. Miles Fairburn, The Ideal Society and Its Enemies (1989) The historian’s ‘man alone’ and landmark in New Zealand historiography. Almost everyone disagrees with his thesis of the isolated society but no-one will write a history of nineteenth century New Zealand without referring to it. Already the Journal of New Zealand History has devoted an entire edition to the book.

17. Colin Simpkin, The Instability of a Dependent Economy (1951) J.B. Condliffe’s The Making of New Zealand is better known, but Simpkin’s is better economics and better history, confirming its prescient and memorable title. My In Stormy Seas: The Post-War New Zealand Economy can be thought of a sucessor with the advantage of a longer coverage.

18. Harry Holland, Robert Ross, & ‘Ballot Box’ (Francis O’Flynn), The Tragic Story of the Wahi Strike (1913) The only co-authored book in the list – on an industrial dispute which Erik Olssen sees as pivotal in the rsie of unionsim in his The Red Feds.

19 Katherine Mansfeld, Collected Stories (1945) Though she spent her adult years abroad, her best stories recall her New Zealand childhood, and convey a fresh and moving impression of the fragility human experience. Once she seemed our only recognised writer. Frank Sargeson said she “imposed a pattern on our writing. Lots of young women wrote Mansfield stories.” Today we do not hold her in the same awe and she is the better writer for it.

20. John A Lee, Children of the Poor (1934} Lee may eventually be remembered as much as a writer of social realism as a politician. He began this book a day after the Queen Street riot, his childhood memories stirred by the hardship of the 1930s. The Truth newspaper headlined it ‘Sister’s degradation for starving family: a sensational book on vice poverty and misery’.

21. Jane Mander, Story of a New Zealand River ( 1920) A vivid. female (early feminist?) perception of pioneering society.

22. William Guthrie Smith Tutira (1921) A tour-de-force on the ecology of a sheep. station: geology. Maori occupation. original and introduced vegetation. fauna. the Pakeha impact.

23. Robin Hyde, Passport to Hell (1937} Starkie may have been the quintessential New Zealand soldier with a disrespect for danger and discipline, but home after the war was its own hell. This book just pips Archibald Baxter’s We Shall Not Cease.

24. Michael King, Te Puea (1977) A great biography of a great woman possibly the most influential in our history.

25. John Pascoe, Great Days in New Zealand Mountaineering (1958) An affectionate review of the mountains of New Zealand told through the lives of some of the mountaineers who climbed them.

26. John Mulgan, Man Alone (1939} In his essay on the New Zealand novel in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, Lawrence Jones makes this the standard model for the New Zealand novel. It has been required reading for all school children. Perhaps the picture of the solo man is not really New Zea1and. but the description of the Queen Street riot and the struggle through the bush are unforgettable.

27. Tony Simpson, The Sugar Bag Industry (1974) Still the best oral history, providing an enduring memory of the Great Depression, which we forget at our peril.

28. Crawford Somerset, Littledene: Patterns of Change (1938, rev. 1974) The story of a small town (Oxford} which combines the wry insights of a sociologist and the lyric observations o[ a poet.

29. Barry Gustafson, From Cradle to Grave: A Biography of Michael Joseph Savage (1986) From a stunning opening about the hardships of Australian life at the turn of the century, develops into a comprehensive biography of a man, that perhaps misses only the political steel behind the famous beatific smile.

30. Keith Sorrenson, Nga To Hoa Aroha, From Your Dear Friend: The Correspondence between Sir Peter Buck and Sir Apirana Ngata (3 Volumes 1986. 1987. 1988) Superbly edited Correspondence of two outstanding and influential New Zealanders commenting on the great matters of the day.

31 Frank Sargeson, The Stories of Frank Sargeson (1973: Written 1935-1970) In these realist narratives of (largely) New Zealand male society, Sargeson captures a local vernacular and idiom while pondering on central preoccupations of gender, cultural, social economic and national identity.

32. Bill Sutch, The Quest for Security (1942 revised 1966) The first edition was a best-selling Penguin Special. The second still provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of the history of the welfare state told around the thesis in the title. His Poverty and Progress in Zealand would be an alternative.

33 Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Spinster (1958) Love her or hate her – her biographer Lynley Hood could not decided either – Ashton-Warner’s combination of a work of fiction and an educational treatise has a strong woman fighting bureaucracy and rural narrow mindedness This contrast to Man Alone gave her an international reputatation.

34 James K Baxter, Collected Poems (1979, edited J E Weir) An eccentric public image throughout his life meant that his poetry was not always appreciated for its qualities: grand rhetoric passion in youth to austere simplicity at the end (at 46). Bill Oliver and Frank Mackay have both written splendid biographies.

35 Marie Clay, The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties: A Diagnositc Survey and Reading Recovery Procedures (1979) It is no accident that New Zealand students recently topped the world in reading attainment. A close second is G.W. Parkyn’s Success and Failure at the University, which underpinned the principle of open university access, being undermined today (but our kids can read),

36 Barry Crump, A Good Keen Man (1960)The best of the humour yarn tradition, whose simplicity conceals a lot of skill.

37 Alan Curnow, Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 (1997) Curnow may well be one of this century’s greatest poet in English as his distinctive talent is increasingly being recognised abroad. An earlier collected works has been replaced with the latest

38 Sonia Davies, Bread and Roses (1984) The autobiography of an ordinary New Zealand woman who was nevertheless one of our most remarkable for what she did and what she achieved. (And she keeps going on!)

39 Gil Docking, Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Pinting (1971, second edition with Michael Dunn 1991) A book which gave us a sense that we had our own vibrant tradition of New Zealand art.

40 Janet Frame, An Autobiography (1989): To the Is-land (1982); An Angel at My Table (1984); The Envoy From Mirror City (1985) New Zealand’s best autobiography, in part captured on film by Jane Campion.

41 Maurice Gee, The Plumb Trilogy; Plumb (1978). Meg (1981); The Sole Survivor (1983} Sustained narrative of a family and society by one of our most modest and most skilled writers of fiction. The jewel or the three is the first book, but the last with the contrast between the third generation’s political thug and wet journalist presaged Rogernomics.

42 Lloyd Geering, God in the New Worls (1968) A book which contributed to the religious debate overseas, and the religious controversy at home, making available the insights of new scholarship to a wider number of people in the community.

43 Keri Hume, The Bone People (1983) Celebrated Booker prize winner, its raw violence and aroha make it an unforgettable landmark account of the deep passions of New Zealand society.

44 Witi Ihimaera, Pounamu, Pounamu (1972) In a series of short stories, of which this is the first collection, Ihimaeraportrays the Maori migration from the country into the city. with an innocence and deftness which belies the profound impact of the transformation.

45 Greg McGee, Foreskin’s Lament (1981 revised) A play which captures the poetry of rugby, and its brutality, from the 1956 tour to the 1981 tour (in revised version) and tackles social issues even more important than rugby.

46 Margaret Mahy, The Haunting (1982) New Zealand’s greatest children’s writer tells a story about the edge of adolescence. Winner of the Carnegie medal.

47 Ngaio Marsh, Died in the Wool (1944) The best of that genre of popular fiction for the international market which uses New Zealand settings to tell a good story.

48 Bruce Mason, Solo (1981) For its “End of the Golden Weather” that marvellous gift which Mason wrote (and acted) of a boy growing up from innocence into the adult world. Pity the collection does not also include “The Pohutukawa Tree”.

49 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) The greatest book written in New Zealand. Is it a New Zealand book though? Our credit is that we gave refuge to many middle European refugees when the world was in despair. They in return gave much to us. This firm rejection of extremism of the right and of the left is an outstanding example.

50 Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand (1958 and revised) Although like Reeves’ The Long White Cloud this pivotal history with its message of New Zealand as a nation may lose its prominence, there will always be a place for one of Sinclair’s books among our best books: perhaps The Origin of the Maori Wars, or Walter Nash.

51 Ranginui Walker, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End (1990) By a nice coincidence. the last of the 51 books is the first major Maori history of New Zealand. The distinctiveness of its story. contrasting with Sinclair’s history , is a reminder that in our maturity there is diversity.

And some to be added in the dozen years since. The number indicates roughly where they would go in the above list.

(1.5) Trevor Worthy & Richard Holdaway; principal photography by Rod Morris, Lost World of the Moa : Prehistoric Life of New Zealand (2002)
(9.5) Philip Temple. A Sort of Conscience : The Wakefields (2002)
(17.5)Erik Olssen, Building the New World : Work, Politics and Society in Caversham 1880s-1920s (1997)
(23.5) Archibald Baxter, We Will Not Cease (1968 2ed)
(29.5) Clarence Beeby, The Biography of An Idea : Beeby on Education (1992)
(33.5) Ronald Hugh Morrieson, The Scarecrow (1963)
(34.5) Heather Nicholson, The Loving Stitch : A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand (1998)
(35.5) Harry Orsman (ed), The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997)
(43.5) Donna Awatere, Maori Sovereignty (1984)
(48.5) Malcolm McKinnon, Treasury: the New Zealand Treasury, 1840-2000 (2003) or should it be Bateman New Zealand Historical Atlas (1977) editor with Barry Bradley & Russell Kirkpatrick?
(49.5) Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors (1999)
(51+) Wira Gardener, Return to Sender: What Really Happened At the Fiscal Envelope Hui (1996)
(51+) Owen Marshall, The Best of Owen Marshall’s Short Stories (1997)
(51+) Bruce Jesson, Only Their Purpose is Mad (1999)
(51+) Bill Manhire, Collected Poems (2001)

There has been such a flowering of young novelists, it is hard to choose one as the novelist. Tentatively, for I may change my mind, Elizabeth Knox, Tawa (1998)

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