Why read?

I’ve set this out before. Here it is again. Reading is complex. Think Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. Reading’s not watching, and it’s not travel. It’s not something to do. It’s something you become, like fatigued, alert, or in love. This is because a book, once ingested, becomes part of your soft-lining.

Read: because it’s effective. Once read, a text will continue to inform you. It will exist in the muscles around your eye sockets. You cannot remove this new insight. Think That Deadman’s Dance by Kim Scott.

Best to burn books, or ban them, or just not read them, if you want to stay vanilla.

Read: because it’s powerful. Once read, you’re changed. You may not think so. But who can hear their own voice change? You’ll be the last person aware of it.  Think The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov.

Read: because it’s enraging. Once a text enters you, you’ll be challenged on a terrible level.  This is the level of your own self-you. Think of those books that suggest it’s time to leave the awful struggle on the road. Let it flap back to it’s own necessary family.  Think What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky.

Read: because it’s expansive. Inside, you blow larger, and you won’t be able to restore your old favourite self damning dimensions. Think I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.

Read: because it’s confronting. We’re all recovering from something. Reading prevents our self-denial from becoming too comfortable by allowing comfort. Think Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Read so you’ll be forced to contemplate an example of precise and dazzling beauty. Think These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy.

Read because it’s comforting. Open your courage flaps and allow in a couple of astonishingly simple but completely new and healing ideas. Think My Goblin Therapist by Morgan Taubert.

Read, because the great texts are written by good solid failing people, and not generated by AI content tools that are sleek with success and without human allergies or proper death. Think A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Read because we basically don’t know anything. Think The Ugly Tourist by Jamaica Kinkaid.

Read because we basically think we know everything. Think Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Read: because the great texts take risks, and they insert tight unnoticed gems of permission into our poor flat salads. Think Mist by Louise M Hewett

Read: because once you’ve experienced the greatest writing, you too will quietly flake that same humility and insight onto your own breakfast table. Think The Vivisector by Patrick White.

You can’t forget. Think Ping by Marjorie Flack.

You’ll be enraged. Think Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.

You’ll be desolate. Think A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Think Collete. Think Margaret Atwood. Think Brain Moore and Amitav Ghosh. Helen Garner.

Elizabeth Bishop.

What is power? Tolkien, tell me. Suffering. Baldwin. Anger: Terry Pratchett. Vision: Huxley.

The Odyssey. You think it’s not relevant? Fools. The Very Hungry Caterpillar: we are you.

James Joyce. Sigh.

Of course, a Good Bookshop will put all these books right in front of you so you too can share in the glory. But not in my bookshop because I already took all these books home, and I’m keeping them.

LOL.

On this day

A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.

I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.

People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.

It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.

Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.

Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.

A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.

A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.

Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’

Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.

I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).

A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.

I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.

The coffee people

Come into the shop with extra muscles and more blood than other people. Come in grinning. Eyes sparking humorous energy. Can get down to the bottom shelves even when balancing hot coffee; the bottom shelves are fun. They get the music I’m playing, sometimes executing a few imperceptible dance steps next to Biographies.

When the sound of motorbikes shaves the air away from the inside of the shop, the coffee people don’t notice. Coffee is a hot fragrant cushion. The young couple nursing steaming hot coffee look at me and nod happily. There’s another family in here too this morning, flushed and fresh from cold grass and junior soccer. They are on their way to get coffee.

One of their children bought a book about chocolate to the counter. His two golden coins were hot clutched. He handed them to me, hot, clutched, melting.

A smaller girl appeared at the counter, just her face. Then a five-dollar note flapped onto the counter in front of me.

Then her book poked up slowly and was laid next to the five dollar note: Lego Star Wars. I gave her back a coin and her eyes widened, then softened.

The coffee people cross and re cross the floor, going from room to room beaming light, carrying Ernest Hemingway and Chaucer. Reaching for Johnathon Swift, The coffee illuminating and warming sudden new interests.

I can hear children quarrelling smally in the back room.

Now the green grass soccer family are leaving, everyone with a carefully chosen book, and mum with a paper bag, a newspaper, her book, and a son burying his head into her stomach as they bundle through the door and into the cold which isn’t cold for them.

The coffee people continue, ‘What about the collected works of Charles Dickens..?’

‘We’ve got most of them.’

She nods and dives at the lower shelves. Something else.

Why are people so quiet when they look at books?

Sometimes customers are so quiet, I forget they are there. They’re in danger of being locked in, something that’s happened in bookstores before. But never here (yet). People can be silent when it’s necessary.

Browsers of books are always moving; it’s just that you can’t see the movements; imperceptible downloads of information and ideas so astonishing, that on the outside the reader appears as though paralysed. They move from shelf to shelf, giving back only delicate breath, and sometimes not even that.

An arm reaches. A finger touches a spine, asking something. The book is grasped and held, examined. Rejected. Or, held while the reader’s head tilts back, giving ceiling to the eyes, which need it because the memory they are interrogating is too large for this small shop.

Sometimes the paperback is placed under one arm and carried softly along.

Readers gaze into long barely lit thoughts which are ignited and hiss briefly before going out again, sparked by pictures on covers, images on spines, the dry smell of paper, the thick loving waist of a paperback no longer new, the cough of an opening sentence that you remember icily from high school.

Small children are the stillest. All the action happens in the small roaring rooms of their minds. Sometimes their eyes go wide and their lips compress. Then back to normal, all in a second. Once a child shook his head sharply as though trying to dislodge something back into the book.

Some readers press hands to hearts while they read. Others go up on toes and down again. Men jangle keys and coins and say, ‘HA!’ to the page. Readers come and tell me what they just found, and others place their books before me apologetically, as though admitting inferiority of choice. There’s no such thing.

 Sometimes readers just gaze at a book, neither touching nor opening the covers. Why? What are they thinking? They might turn their heads just slightly, and that’s all.  

Paul Keating has an amazing intellect

Somebody said this at my window, tapping on the glass to show his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. But they didn’t come into the shop.

That’s ok, it’s the school holidays and the readers are out leaping into the shop with narrowed eyes like hunters on the path of something. One young woman announced herself to me but turned midsentence, already at the biographies and not finishing the sentence.

But that’s ok, I needed to sit down after battling the autumn leaves in the doorway again. And again. Every morning they come back and wait for me. My broom is coming apart.

When I was out there sweeping, an old lady asked me, ‘Did you get that book I wanted and can’t remember?’ But I hadn’t found it. I couldn’t remember it either, and she patted my arm and said, ‘Not to mind. I’ll leave you to your sweeping up.’

Sarah came in needing a number for a taxi. She said that what was going on in Lismore wasn’t good enough.

Robert came in after a year’s absence and started right off where we’d finished last May. His newest news was that he’d saved a lot of money by giving up smoking. He’d saved thousands. So now he could buy some books. But then he remembered that he’d taken up smoking again, and he showed me a plastic wallet of tobacco which reminded me of my grandfather. I almost said Tally Ho, but I didn’t. Robert said that the tobacco cost him $150 and looked furious about it. But then he noticed behind me on a shelf, The Secret Doctrine by H P Blavatsky, Quest Book, Theosophical Publishing House. He read all this out loud. Then he said, ‘I’ll have that.’

We looked at each other, pleased, and then talked about tobacco some more. Then he rushed out to do other errands, and Jim came in and ordered an esoteric type of book that I’d ordered before – for Robert. I told Jim, and he said, ‘I know, Robert gave me a lift in to Strath and told me to get one.’ So I got one for him. I said, ‘How’s Clayton, and he said, ‘Yeah, well you know how it is.’ Which I didn’t, but I agreed anyway.

The girl who was amongst the biographies came back to the counter with a pile. There was 1 historical, 5 crimes, 2 biographies, 2 children’s flats and 1 art book. She bobbed up and down while she paid, flexing leg muscles and looking powerful. I said, indicating Wolf Hall, ‘This is good’, and she said powerfully, ‘I know, my mum told me about it.’

Anthony came in for science fiction. An ambulance and police car went past, and then a CFS truck. He said, ‘that sounds bad’.

A silent young couple came in and looked at just about everything and left silently. I said, thanks for coming in, but they didn’t reply. A lady asked for a book about a certain type of guitar. Another lady asked for spiritual Christian fiction and then left with nothing and looking unsatisfied. I went to the bakery for a chocolate doughnut and there were none left and I came back with nothing and feeling unsatisfied.  

Then someone tapped on the window and called out to his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. The friend nodded with folded arms not looking interested. The man remained bent over and slowly examined all the other books in the window. They didn’t come in.

All in all a satisfying day. Except for the autumn leaves. Lol.

Illustration by Konstantin Mashkarin

Buy books then,

“Buy books, then, that you have read with profit and pleasure and hope to read and reread.
Buy books that you may underscore passages and write upon the margins, thus assuring yourself that the book is your own. Keep the books that mean the most to you close at hand, one or two, if possible, on a table at your bedside.
Do not hide away your favorite books or keep them locked in enclosed shelves. Do not keep them under glass.”

Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure

Gee, love your work

A young man came into the shop and said, ‘Every time I come down here I need something. And this time I need something again, might be hard to find, hoping you can look it up and see if it’s still around.’

I waited for the title. He looked at his phone, scrolled through page after page, but couldn’t find it.

I said, ‘Maybe the author?’

But he couldn’t remember. Then he found the book. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’

I had it right there on the shelf. He lit up, surprised, and turned the paperback over and over. ‘My God, love your work. Too easy. Gee, I love your work.’

Then he paid for it. ‘$5.00, that’s so easy. Too easy. Love your work.’

Then he left but put his head back through the door once more to say, ‘Love your work.’

Illustration by Laura Antillano

Young readers check the weight and shape of a book

This is what young people do when they are choosing a book.

They don’t just read the title and note the author. There is much more going on than that . That alone is far too mere for today’s young readers. Who, of course, don’t read because they are always on their phones.

Young readers turn a book and hold it flat in the palm of the hand. There is information to be gained by doing this. They weight the book up and down. I have seen them do this while looking away into space.

They consider the back, the front, and sometimes, the extreme edges of the volume. Young people are not pressed flat by time (yet). They apply fingertips to pages and corners as though seeing into the writing this way. They purse lips and breathe energy into decision. One girl folded her hands under her chin and clenched them tightly. Staring at a volume placed at an angle to catch two kinds of light.

‘Bitch, I’m getting this.’

The friend agrees without looking. She has her own dilemma. A hardback copy of The Virago Women Traveller.

Sometimes they consult information via iPhone. They look from phone to book, screen to page, text to text. Ah… not so different after all.

They whisper, Anne McCaffrey died in 2011.

They assess something by holding a book by the spine with just two fingers. They turn their face from side to side to get at every sensation. They place fingertips on titles. It’s as though they are handling holy things.

The dad

I remember him because he asked me if he could come in with food. He was carrying brown paper bags and coffee. His teenage daughter was already inside. She’d been looking at science fiction for the last half hour. When she heard him, she appeared in the doorway and nodded. He came in.

I said all food is ok. I was eating a doughnut. He stood behind her nodding and listening and drinking his coffee, and he bought every book she wanted, which was three. She said, as they left, ‘I love bookshops,’ and he nodded and held the door, still eating his pastie. Then they went out into the rain.

Illustration by Johanna Wright

The Umbrella

There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.

There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.

There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.

There’s mud all over the footpath;  every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.

It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.

The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.

A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.

Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.

When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.

A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.

The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.