On Building a Library

dr.pngDuring the school holidays, two sisters came into the shop with their mother and they both asked for some of the Cat Warrior books. But I didn’t have any.
They comforted me, they said that it didn’t matter as they had other books to read. The older sister was reading The Dragon World books – Icefire and Fire Ascending and the younger sister was reading Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas.
They said they have never run out of books because one sister has 43 books at home and the other has 112 and sometimes they read the same book again because if it is good enough they can read it again, maybe three times. The older sister, however, has read Inkheart no less than four times so far. They only collect books that are really good but sometimes a half good book is ok. They change the shelves around a lot and also mix the books around to change the colours. Their seriously best book, which is about dragons, goes on the best shelf.


Stop Looking


On Thursday, a family visited the shop on their way home to Sydney. They said they had no room in their car for more books. They look very happy. They are mum, dad – they had difficulty walking and their daughter, one of their daughters, that is, and she has difficulties with having too many books. They are so happy together. The mother and daughter clutched each other every time they discovered another book. The mother is reading China Mieville. I said: here, I’ll show you a picture of China Mieville. The mother look hard at this science fiction writer and said – well I definitely want to read him then, don’t I, I do like all things difficult. Her daughter colluded: that’s true, she does.

Then they had to search through bags and pockets for the money.
They joined hands briefly, anxiously searching.
They were all so bright. Their glasses were imperial purple and emerald green. They had everything bright. The man joined them from another room and they said ecstatically: look father’s joining in. Good on you Leon. They commanded him to find his wallet. He looked at me and his face was alive with happiness. He said: look at me saddled with this for a family.

He was carrying Arthur Upfield and Peter O’Donnell and walking carefully, being saddled with such a family and everything.
I could buy more
Couldn’t we all.
I’m having a last go.
Did you find the money?
And they all continued round again, glowing, satisfied, filling their car that was already too full. Leon wore a cherry red jumper and I wondered who made it for him, probably knitting and reading a book at the same time.
I have made a library. The daughter told me about a library she has made at home now that her adult children are moving out. She said it is glorious.
They pay for their books: China Mieville, Robert Jordan, Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Upfield, Peter O’Donnell, Jean Auel and finally a copy of Pinocchio. They pack them in a large bag covered in black and gold and orange triangles and with orange and green handles.
Come on then. They need to urge each other out of the door.
Stop looking
You stop looking.
They held on to each other to get out of the door, Leon carried all the books and off they went, all saddled together.


china_mieville.jpg  China Mieville

Max Stacks



There is always work to do in the realms of gold.

And Max is always in arrears with the work; the number of shelves that need to be unshelved is relentless and the books clamouring to be loaded cause him untold frustration and joy.
Each day, many times a day, Max works patiently, carrying paperbacks, one at a time across acres of living room to another place, clearly a better place. He surveys each fresh cargo seriously, standing in silence, giving a benediction. Then he returns, the toddler ship, to the shelf, which will soon be another empty harbor.

Sometimes, from somewhere, he will receive new orders and be forced to stop at sea. It is time to stack.
This is an apprenticeship that he has embraced and practiced since he could crawl and when his infant services of carry, balance and freight were precarious at best. Now he is master tradesman, stern with assistance, moving the wrong book aside without courtesy or comment, uninterested in advice.
His baby brain is noticing that dimensions make a difference. He can pack paperbacks with precision. It is appropriate to sandwich classics between Hairy Maclary and Schiller’s Poems and Plays. Once I saw him stack The Father Brown Stories beneath Simone de Beauvoir and on top of her, a small plastic truck.

The prevailing stack is lively. Colin Thiele is a mere slice underneath Cooking with Copha, Manning Clark’s History of Australia has been re dealt, only three of the volumes are necessary and these are decked on top of Hilary Clinton, A History of Persian Architecture and three Viragos. Max stares at Footrot Flats and allows himself to dribble on the cover. He recognises the kitty. He presses the souls of his feet into Asterix. The Britannica Greats are too heavy, Freud, also too heavy, ponderous and creaking along with Dickens, Butler, Proust, Trollope, all the males in heavy sensible shoes that cannot be lifted with one hand. The Russians are no better, the whole set is the same, they talk too much and do not cooperate. Twilight, Breaking Dawn are light and pleasing but they are not placed well, they cannot hold their own weight, they are limp in the sun, they allow Greek Mythology and the Bullfinch to lean and fall. The north corner of the wall is weak, Wolf Hall, although working brilliantly is flung calmly aside as if it was the one that caused the limp.
A History of the World in 100 Objects and Blinky Bill are auditioned.
The Lord of the Rings leans against the window, smoking a pipe, calm, watching.
There is a copy of The Stories of Edith Wharton, once again poked into an odd place between armchairs, its dust cover gently removed, (once I found next to it, a disrespectful and small piece of toast). The dust cover is always found, unharmed, slid between 500 Cabinets and Rocks and Minerals for Young Readers. This book does not get a go at the wall.
Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat has taken the top of the stack.
On the Banks of Plum Creek is sliced on top of Gobbo.
Teddy Goes on a Picnic is the flag, placed carefully on top of a Somerset Maugham.
But then it is lunchtime and there is a calling and a cajoling from the kitchen and the stack is abruptly forgotten and abandoned, its inhabitants left rocking in the warmth of the choosing and the building and the heights and the taking part of library life, in life.




When I Was in Grade 4


When I was in grade 4, I got into trouble for doing the wrong thing. This, back then, was to read all the readers in the box too fast, and then ask for more. The teacher said I was selfish. I tried to read more slowly, and I tried really hard, I ached with slowness and generosity and cooperation.

But then I committed a worse travesty. Our grade 4 task, back then, was to write a review of one of those books. I chose the best one: about a goat and possibly a wizard and there were white and purple illustrations and this little reader had been read a thousand times and not all by me. I believed that to review meant to write out the whole book, word for word and so I did, my pencil wearing down in spirals of ecstasy, the words printing themselves in disbelief.
The teacher said: is there anyone so stupid as you!
She made me jump and I crept back to my desk, wondering if I was still there. But I was and I was and I was. The teacher had handed me back, in contempt, my lovely copy, to keep.
And so at the end of the day the teacher packed her bag full of bad temper, fatigue and the end of summer in 1974 and I packed mine, choked it to the straps with treasure, my own copy of a book about a wizard and possibly a goat, copied out by me, and then I dragged its immense value home, dancing.


Noah Reads

Noah reading 2.png

Noah reads like a proper reading person, that is, he reads like himself.

He is a year old. When he examines the book, the front and back, the bottom and top, each page on a useful hinge, the last page an attractive gate, nobody knows (except for him) what he is thinking, believing or eating.

Noah reads at an alarming rate, this will continue until formal instruction begins and then he will slow down to a courteous pace; he is  already a thoughtful baby. He will travel thoughtfully through reading requirements. But alone, he will soar with closed eyes, apologetic of recommended titles, he will read the same book over and over, re read old books, re read easy books, insist on reading difficult books, put aside appropriate books and be kind but not enthusiastic about reader stars for progress, charting instead, his own country which will feature a starscape that only he can track.

Noah watches his own parents read. His house is growing a garden outside and a library inside. The library is without plan, format or sensible guidelines. The books are filed according to where they land. There are old books, new books, worn out books and well read books all in together, a mother country with no end page but requiring a heavy reference: it must be a book someone may want to read some day. Volumes that do not wear this badge are shelved anyway.
Noah travels this realm of gold somewhat carelessly, after all, it has always been there. Its gilt influence on his life may go unnoticed, or maybe not. Everybody reads differently.
Some people read for recovery, relaxation, distraction.
Some people read for accomplishment, achievement and knowledge.
Some people read to accumulate data, settle argument, prove frontiers.

This, then, for Noah, a beautiful infant in a great age, the digital age: that he might forgo analysis for listening. That he will pursue the tentative and the original. That he will take terrible risks and abandon the surface of things.
That he might reach air’s other side… ( Rainer Maria Rilke )

Noah reading



The Shelf of Blue Books

blue books.png

There is a car stopped and parked directly outside the front window of the shop and it is another quiet day but those people getting out of that car are not quiet. They are a group of five retired people and the first lady out of the car swings her door vigorously into the veranda post.
She says: Oh, shit John.
He comes around to her side, kindly. Did you dent my door… you bloody did too.
They examine the dent, leaning close, she has her glasses on the absolute end of her nose. She says: oh, don’t worry about that, that’s nothing… but he bends closer, looking doubtful. There are two more ladies, crowding in and looking solitious.
She says: I’m going over to the tootie, come on girls. And they shuffle off together, carrying bags, cardigans, hats and irreverence.
Another man emerges from the car and comes around to stand on the footpath. He calls out: you girls watch what you’re doing.
He says to the luckless John: If she gets run over, she’ll blame me. Then they examined the post that injured his car.
When’s your insurance due, mate? They move to the edge of the road and talk in low voices.
Then they turn and look through the shop window, They say nothing. They bend to look through the window. Still they say nothing. Conversation has come to a halt, they are looking at books and there is nothing to say.

Then the second man says: pointless sort of places there, aren’t they? Pointless having these anymore.

He looks back across the road, back to something that is not pointless: gawd, here they come, look at ’em coming across that road like that.
But the first man, John, stood for longer looking through at the books.

He says: well, my grandmother had a shelf, full of book and all of em blue, actually it was nice, we kiddies used to stand in front of it, not allowed to touch them, wouldn’t have dared, my grandfather was a bastard, a cruel old fool. But those books, they were important. Because they were nice, added colour to her life that was really shitty. I only just remembered it.

The others crowded close, breathing on my window, looking polite, waiting for the story to end.
One lady said: very nice.
Then John took his hat off and nodded at the window. The he put his hat back on. He said: well, let’s get a cup of coffee then.





Peggy 2


When Peggy was young she left her husband in Woomera and he burned all her books in revenge. When she told me this, she laughed and said: more fool him.

She came to the shop again, last Friday, driving up from Adelaide all by herself, fearless, irreverent, divine and eighty four. She only has one eye, the other one is made of glass but she threw it in the bin some years ago: the doctor that prescribes that can go to hell. Once when I visited her, she showed me a photo of herself just before she was sent to an orphanage. She said: gawd I was ugly. But she wasn’t.
Peggy has read everything.
She always carries a few emergency thrillers in case she is forced to go to a show, a musical, to church,  and then, luckily, she can read to pass the time.

She says: what have you got for me to read Kerry? I offer her Good Literature and she says it is all shit. She goes to the science fiction instead. She is very tall, very angular, very bold, unforgettable. When I used to visit her in Strathalbyn she wore a man’s dressing gown to the door and carried a glass of red wine. She has read all of the Game of Thrones and can’t wait until the next volume or the next season to comes out, when she will be 85.

I said: that series is very violent and she said approvingly: hahaha.

Last year she nursed her own daughter, who was dying of cancer, until she died. Her new friends she has made since moving to Adelaide tell her to join a walking group. They say it will be good for her. They say she should not read so much.
(Peggy has read everything.)
She looks at me and asks me if they are right.
I ask her to please never change. She says: hahaha!
Peggy has never once had an easy life but this does not impress her and it has never mattered.

The Staff Meeting


In all businesses there must be staff meetings.

I do not have staff meetings because the only staff member is myself. But eventually I can agree that any discussion of brilliant books could be a staff meeting of sorts.
This staff meeting was attended by four of us. We discussed Jared Diamond, anthropology, possibly Terry Pratchett, possibly Asterix, definitely Australian history, and probably fiction as it is important.
The babies shouldered in, sticky, warm, breathing too loudly, ignoring the social rules of public meetings: they did not dress to impress and they did not prepare a list of books they have Just Read. Noah threw a board book into the midst of the speakers without introducing it appropriately. Max brought a rattle which was not relevant.

They are scornful of the meeting guidelines.

Max stands too close to other members and eats loudly, forgetting previous eating out loud advice. He also prefers to stand with one sticky starfish hand holding on to a neighbour’s shoulder, an infringement at best.
Sometimes they allow a baby shout of fervour, a hoot or a loud laugh at something which nobody else can see. They make each other laugh. So obviously next time they will not be permitted to be near each other.
Once when offered a volume, Noah hurled it to the floor. Both babies looked down at it confounded by the solid pitch of its landing. They breathe hard, exhaling a world of information concerning the physics of the crash. Then they abruptly turned and left, walking on  fat and rolling feet with no ankles yet or crawling rapidly, aiming for distance, stopping to think, continuing without explanation.

Then they are suddenly back again, my grandsons, sure of their welcome, turning toward the ribbons of talk, rotating amongst the enthusiasm and eyeing unblinking the volumes that are held aloft. They gaze at faces, hold out hands toward the books, stir richly through enthusiasm, walk across books, warming themselves on a bedrock of unlimited and imperishable treasure.




I wish you would use your windscreen


This is what Annette said to Bruce when he could not find her anywhere and finally came into the shop today to see if I may know anything.

Then she was in the door and behind us and furious because if Bruce had bothered to look through his windscreen he would have seen her waving. She said maybe he should clean the windscreen. Then they ordered a copy of Hawaii by James Michener and went to have a cup of tea next door.
It is quiet and warm, there is nobody around, there is nobody that wants a book this week! Outside a very old man is smoking and leaning into the sunshine with his eyes closed. There is a bag at his feet holding loaf of bread, a bag of onions and a hammer.

A man came in to ask me directions to Noarlunga, he had to get to his daughter’s dinner party soon or she would kill him. He paced around in circles while I wrote some directions down. He didn’t have her a gift either, he said it was going to be a grim evening.
A family come in for a while and the smallest boy tells me that his mother can not be trusted in a place like this and made his family all laugh kindly at him.
Two men come past and glance through the window and one says to the other: I can’t see anything through this window and the other man replied: this place is closed now mate!

I am asked for a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
There are a group of children discussing books loudly and fiercely here for a while. They are fervent and confident and happy. None of them answer anyone else’s questions…

The thing that annoyed me the most about this one is all the workers, they were paid in vouchers. Did you even see that? I’ve just finished the series, just finished this series too.
Look at this….
Divergent, naa
Every season is different in this
What’s this one? It looks ok, no it isn’t.
No, I don’t want that.
I like all these colours in the shelf, all together.
I don’t think they will ever change the words, will they? Do you think they will ever change the words in this? Are they even allowed to do that?
Then the parents are back. The mother reassures one of the readers that they will never change the words in Little Women, that no, they can’t do that.
Two couples outside the shop are arguing about coming in.
One of the children is whispering to me about The Ranger’s Apprentice books.
The old man who was smoking has gone away.
The couple outside are rift, two coming in and two going to the bakery. One of the husbands is witty, he calls back: see you two blokes tomorrow then. The wives look at each other and neither answer him.
The young family are leaving, they call back thank you very much.
I am asked for Alice in Wonderland.
It is nice to be here.









You’re not getting any more fuckin’ books!


This morning, outside the shop, a young man stopped to look through the long window, he is about 16, maybe. He is dressed all in black, including a black beanie even though it is a warm day. He has a backpack made of canvas and leather and a pierced eyebrow. But his mother, who is just behind him and carrying three heavy bags, tells him he is not getting any more fuckin’ books. She walks on tiredly, carrying all the shopping, all their problems, their whole life there in amongst the bread and the shampoo.

The boy is shading his eyes, perhaps to see better, he examines the shelves for a long time.
People on the footpath outside the store often do this, but not for this long.

He stares at the books on the table in front of the window, turns his head to read titles, he shades his eyes to see better, staring into something for minute after minute, and longer. He turns his head abruptly toward the end of the street, his mother is coming back. He moves toward her, puts earplugs in, he takes the smallest bag, carrying for her a small part of their life. They move away again, and he is singing along to his music that only he can hear.