The couple who showed each other every book they found

I recognized them, they’ve been here before; they come through the door nonchalant and smooth, and head straight for their shelf.

They both lean into the shelves the same way, head on the necessary angle, flip the pages and look closely at the back of the book. If it suffices, they straighten and hold the book up for each other to see.

They lean back and grin at each other. They whisper and nod and examine book after book.

They cradle the chosen ones in their arms and move on to the next shelf.

Painting by Edward B. Gordon

…cut snake virus in its doll’s house…

A selection of 6 opening lines I really really like:

1) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”
Perfume by Patrick Suskind

2) “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Brighton Rock by Graham Green

3) “It was Mrs May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me – a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth.”
The Borrowers by Mary Norton

4) “Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house.”
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

5)”It was night when the Nargun began to leave. Deep down below the plunging walls of a gorge it stirred uneasily.”
The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

6) “The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town n the South.”
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian 

A couple looking through the door and wondering whether to come in

They almost have their eyes on the glass. I can hear them through the door.

‘Do you reckon this is mask-wearing territory?’

‘What do you say babe, want to go in?’

They adjust their masks and come in. She is serene and quiet and pearlescent and powerful. He is broad and outdoors. He bounces on his feet, cannot contain his energy, calls me ‘mate’, wears his mask crooked, and whistles with admiration at basically everything. He kneels down, stands up, bounces, straightens his shoulders, turns around, alive with purpose.

‘What can I get babe? I could go for this.’

He chooses Nicholas Nickleby. She already has a stack of Charles Dickens chin high. She said, ‘Mmmm.’ He said, ‘Babe, we should get out of here.’ Then to me, ‘Excuse me, what’s your oldest book here.’

He and I searched the books, looking for dates. He said:

‘Cool.’

‘Sick.’

‘Mate. Radical.’

Then he said to her, ‘We should get out of here, babe. I’m going nuts, look at all these.’

She said, ‘Mmmm.’

They come to the counter to pay for their books. I say, ‘Do you want a receipt sent to you phone?’ He does. I ask for his number.

‘Are you cracking onto me?’

I am pleased with his joke because he is young and I am not, but his partner gives a scream of laughter.

‘My God, as if anyone would crack onto you.’ She can’t stop laughing.

He tells me they want books for their library. For their caravan. And for their kids.

They both look at her stomach, just a flicker of a look, but I saw it.

Illustration by Deborah Dewitt

The man who badly needed a cup of tea

He came in to browse and told me that his wife was Dux of Woodville High School, but three weeks ago had walked out of his life. He knelt down to examine all the bottom shelves and said that the books were wonderful. Just wonderful; especially the bird books.

Then he sang me a hymn and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He found a book on Scotland (The History of) and told me about his Scottish parents. He began to make a pile of books while he talked.

‘I’m worried about this generation. All they do is sit on the couch and drink fat.’

He said he didn’t hold with televisions, and that he badly needed a cup of tea.

‘After my wife left me, I had to do something with my life, so I started lifting weights. I’m 77, and you probably don’t believe it.’ I said it was amazing.

‘I just got the first TV of my life the other day. It’s for my new lady, and I’ve put it in its own room. Not with the books. Young people don’t know about the war.’

He went into the other room for a while. Then he came back.

‘Everything, Honey, has a city mentality. Even the birdlife. People only think of coffee and cakes. It’s artificial. I once knew some idiot called Charlie who was like that’.

I agreed.

He sang me another hymn, which I admired. Then he paid for his books, told me that he can’t abide a show off, and said goodbye.

Himself, a flash of unique bright birdlife, gone!

A man here browsing gave me the impression that he was looking for something specific

He was with a friend. She kept bumping his shoulder gently so he had to keep moving along. He frowned and read titles closely and bit his lip, put them back and went on to the next one. He gave each book a long fair go. He tipped his head back and narrowed his eyes to get at the reviews on the back and the dates of publication.

‘You find it?’ She asked. He shook his head. She put headphones in.

In Classics, the man rested on one knee. One elbow resting on the knee. One hand resting on the shelf right next to Steinbeck and Stevenson.

His friend took her headphones out and said they needed to go to Woolies later. He nodded. She put her headphones back in. Began to nod gently to another rhythm. He bent closer to the shelf, angling toward another vision. His feet were uncomfortable, splayed out for balance, and he soon moved back and knelt on both knees instead. He was now backed up against the leg of his friend. She had her eyes closed, and was moving, in tiny imperceptible movements, from side to side.

She reached down with her left hand took hold of his ear. She continued listening. He continued looking. Joined.

“Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader (2006), said that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. I thought about why this is and then wrote the following list:

  1. Although we are not alone, we read alone.
  2. Although what happens when we read is not quiet, it makes us quiet.
  3. What we see and sense when we read happens inwardly no matter how powerful, and the more devastating the experience, the deeper the retreat.
  4. Even though reading is all about the written word, a book can leave us with no words to describe it. This is because we are not describing the book, we are describing what our self has become after reading it, and this is often too new to have any vocabulary yet.
  5. Reading draws on and makes use of what we already know and what we already are, and then somehow turns this material broadside and sends it (and us) bowling down new allies.
  6. Reading can reach our hidden and distraught places (the ones that live on piles of silence) and let in some air.
  7. Reading is private and delicate and social and diabolical.
  8. It is only in silence that we can find our troubles, and reading provides a safe balcony to look from.
  9. Reading leaves us alone to find our own face.
  10. Although we are alone, we actually don’t read alone.

Illustration by Lorena Spurio

Warm and raining; one of those weird days that I really like

The traffic outside is muffled. People turning in all directions, trying to cross the road quickly. A few people coming in for books. A couple in a motorhome all the way from WA and buying books for birthday gifts. Sarah came in for her book about Dawn Frazer. Trevor came in for a copy of Carpentaria. I went to the bakery, twice.

Still raining.

I order a copy of Jellies and Their Moulds for a customer.

I look up Liane Moriarty and Jonathan Gash for other customers. I decide not to clean the windows.

Outside it’s dark, then light and then dark again. The road is already dry. A child passes on a skateboard; I can hear the wheels ticking over the pavers in the footpath. Someone bangs a wheelie bin lid. Two people yell to each other from opposite sides of the road.

‘What you want?’

‘Ohh…just a pie. Get us a pie.’

‘That it?’

‘Yeah. And a cake or something.’

‘Right’.

Someone trying to park outside my door grazes the gutter with a rubbery shriek. A lady get out of the passenger side and looks at the tyre. ‘You’ll have to go again, Alan. You’re not straight.’

Alan has another go and then gets out looking grim, and they walk to the bakery.

Illustration by Pascal Campion