'In offering this little tract to the public it is equally the writer's wish to conduce to their amusement and information.'

As opening sentences of great books go, that doesn't quite match 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'; 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'; 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen'; or 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'

But it's certainly more important for Australians than any of those classic teasers, because it's the beginning of the first book ever published about this country.

Sailing with the fleet that left Portsmouth in 1787 for a new Wales somewhere in the south were five men who had been commissioned by publishers to write about an adventure that was as fascinating to the British then as the moon landing was to the modern world in 1969.

The first author to get a manuscript back to his publisher in London was a marine lieutenant named Watkin Tench, and his account of the journey and the first few weeks of the settlement appeared in April 1789. A Narrative of the Expedition To Botany Bay was such a hit (quickly translated into French, German, Dutch and Swedish) that the publishers demanded a sequel, and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson appeared in 1793. It was another bestseller. You could say Tench was Australia's first international superstar.

No doubt copies of both books were clutched in the hands of Australia's first eight free settlers when they stepped off the boat in Sydney in 1793. They were not put off by Tench's warning to potential colonists: 'If golden dreams of commerce and wealth flatter their imaginations, disappointment will follow.'

Certainly they would have enjoyed the comedy. Tench is initially puzzled when the people he calls 'the Indians' gather round a sheep pen and shout, 'Kangaroo! Kangaroo!' Later his Aboriginal friend Colbee points at a cow and asks, 'Is that a kangaroo?' When Tench identifies a two-legged furry hopper as a kangaroo, Colbee says: 'We call that a patagaran.'

It would seem the earlier explorer whom Tench calls 'Mr Cook' got the name a little wrong, at least for the language group around Sydney harbour.

If they make a movie of Tench's books, you can imagine the most memorable line from Australian cinema so far—'That's not a knife. That's a knife'—being replaced by this dialogue: Tench: 'That's not a kangaroo, that's a cow. That's a kangaroo.'

Colbee: 'That's not a kangaroo. That's a patagaran.' Perhaps the women among the first free settlers were attracted by this observation in Tench's book: 'No climate hitherto known is more generally salubrious. To this cause I attribute the great number of births which happened . . . Women who certainly would never have bred in any other climate here produced as fine children as ever were born.'

Perhaps the men found comfort in this: 'To men of small property, unambitious of trade, and wishing for retirement, I think the continent of New South Wales not without inducements.'

Talk about praising with faint damns. But that's the very modest mindset from which this country grew—and from which an industry of books about our nation grew. Here's a tentative list of the most significant books about the Australian character:

  1. A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789) and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793), now collected as 1788, edited by Tim Flannery.
  2. The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes (1987)
  3. A Fortunate Life, Albert Facey (1982)
  4. Maestro, Peter Goldsworthy (1989)
  5. The Magic Pudding, Norman Lindsay (1918)
  6. For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke (1874)
  7. Australians: Origins to Eureka, Thomas Keneally (2009)
  8. Kangaroo, D.H. Lawrence (1923)
  9. The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery (1994)
  10. Cloudstreet, Tim Winton (1991)
  11. The Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature, edited by Nicholas Jose (2009)
  12. My Place, Sally Morgan (1987) and My Place, Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins (1992)
  13. Advance Australia . . . Where?, Hugh Mackay (2008)
  14. The Secret River, Kate Grenville (2006)
  15. The Little Book of Australia, David Dale (2010)