The Man Who Reads Sir Walter Scott

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Well, he came into the shop and stood bowed in front of the old books, the ones with print that is too small, old novels and histories, poetry and commentary, sets dressed in red and gold and dust and that lean and sink and look out at modern paper with contempt. This man frowned into the shelves and scratched at faded titles and had he had next to his feet, a motorcycle helmet and six cans of beer. He had no hair and he simply blazed with tattoos and earrings. He was looking for Sir Walter Scott. He had completed an arts degree and his thing had been Sir Walter Scott, a great, plain, brilliant hell of a man. He had thrown all his books in the bin and was now visiting every reading joint to get copies again. He didn’t get any from me (he apologized) but the print was just too small and now that his eyes were rooted, he needed the bigger writing, but thanks anyway for having a bookshop!

The English Patient

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A lady is in the shop reading to herself The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I am reading to myself The English Patient. She shows her friend the book and her friend says: Oh, I remember that one. And the reading lady says: don’t we all…and they are smiling. Then they look at my book and tell me that I ought to see the film.

My friend says that Michael Ondaatje is slippery, that is, his writing is slippery, luminous and unpredictable so that suddenly he has described something… like translated light and there is no retreat…

the blue and other colours, shivering in the haze and sand. The faint glass noise and the diverse colours and the regal walk and his face like a lean dark gun

And when reading such incandescent sentences, you know that there is more at play that just those sentences, meanings and truths as large as the world itself following behind your reading, towering over your page, creaking gently behind, on and on and on.

A little boy has chosen a book called How to Draw Monsters and he holds it up to show me, he points significantly toward the monster on the cover. He comes over to whisper to me that he is going to draw these now, but bigger ones.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje is an incomparable writer.

An old lady tells me she has read every book in the Outlander Series and now intends to collect them in hardcover and then she will read them all again. She said she has lived these characters and died with them every day when she reads for hours before dinnertime. I show her The English Patient, but she has never heard of it.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje has written a number of other books, not just The English Patient. And they are all worth pursuit. (He has come in to see me for poetry but there is nothing sufficient here today).

A mother buys Thea Stilton: The Journey to Atlantis for her daughter who is about 10 years old and she leaves with the book balanced on her head and her eyes closed so that she runs into her brother in the doorway and he says Oh man, oh man, what are you…

The English Patient is a book that does not seem to contain many words.

A man comes through the door, hurrying, nervous of the time. He has leant a shovel against the window as he comes in and his boots are covered in cement. He takes his hat off and says the weather is a cow. Then he asks for Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, his favourite book, he wants to read it again and he explains how this book is one of the best, possibly the best in the world. I show him The English Patient and he says he has never heard of it.

The English Patient is unloud and sufficient and simple and impossibly complex, and tonight I will finish it, reading the same startling way I way I did last night, taking in Cairo, the indigo markets, the minarets and the charcoal and the aching hearts and listening to The Rachmaninoff 3 at the same time and Max there with me, banging a toy water buffalo on the keyboard and wanting me to choose Duplo instead.

 

The Sing Song Voice

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Two friends came into the shop and it was freezing outside, and raining, and they asked me about the books on the shelves and then both of them said:

It’s warm in here, can we stay? And one of them said, in a curious sing song voice that was very easy to listen to –

I like these books. Tell me about this Mark Twain.

But the other man was agitated and thought they should be on their way. He said to me: can you tell me how to get onto the freeway from here, actually, can you tell me about the freeway?

I gave directions and told him what I knew and he stood up on his toes and down again and up again and said that these bookshops were amazing. Then he asked me who was Huckleberry Finn anyway and his friend with the musical voice was outraged.

You know Huckleberry Finn man, you know all that river and that, why don’t you even know this anymore…? His friend came down off his toes with a sigh and said: yeah, I know all of that…

Then he said they had to get going and get onto the freeway, that he could see their trip disappearing because he was the only one who was organised. And they left and as they passed back out into the winter afternoon they were still arguing about Huckleberry Finn and the river and that.

A Royal One

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Thelma said she can’t take to Charles Dickens.

David said he can’t find anything in Wilbur Smith.

Ursula said there’s no point in reading Somerset Maugham.

I read a comment describing the pointlessness of reading Great Expectations, as there was no plot.

Tyson said that he lost a few months trying to read Atlas Shrugged, time that he never got back again.

I was told that Middlemarch was not worth finishing and that Dante, even Jesus Christ himself would not read that Inferno shit.

I like to give everything a go. And I like to be free to put anything aside if necessary. I am reading Great Expectations, an unexpected choice and a royal one. It has taken me a long time to get to Charles Dickens and this book, Great Expectations, which I am reading slowly, is proving to be the most engaging appeal to the senses and the most tantalizing description of everybody I don’t like. And the most accurately hammered out observations of what we do and why! I am anxious not to reach the end too quickly; it is an experience that is causing me great joy and consternation….Miss Havisham, the awful and chosen decay…the astounding way the story has been all put together.

Thelma, at the shop today, said that she can’t take to Charles Dickens, never has been able to. She had in her hand Graham Green and Hans Christian Anderson and Hilary Mantel and she was also looking for Colin Thiele. And she also had for me a Christmas gift, she had bought brown paper and painted it herself, in bright purple to match me, she said. She has also painted some string bright gold and made a card with a silver and gold angel on a deep purple background of night sky and stars. She has written on the card in gold. It is an unexpected gift and a royal one.

I am instructed not to open it until Christmas.

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

Sharon and Lauren

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Sharon and Lauren came to the shop to pick up two books that Sharon had ordered in.

But Sharon has not a single defence against the yelling of the other books that crowd the shelves and lean impudently outwards. She moves from shelf to shelf in an agony of indecision. Lauren, however, is younger and wiser; she has birthday money but is not going to spend it here. She knows where she can get a new copy of The Treehouse books for a really good price. I admire her self-control and ability to plan because I have neither of these things when it comes to books or liquorice. Lauren, who is nine years old, moves serenely around the shelves, considering and thinking and planning her day.

Sharon has found a copy of The Last Days of Pompeii, a singular beauty, but I don’t mind as I already have a copy. She is anxious not to miss out on The Art of War. She finds volume one of an Aristotle but not volume two. She finds Ben Hur. She finds The Arabian Nights, a weighty volume with beautiful illustrations that I coveted for myself even though I already have a copy. But I allow it to go to Sharon; it will have a fine home. She puts aside Anne Frank and Confucius and Ruth Maier’s Diary. She spends some time in Art and becomes upset. She recognises The Silver Brumby. She is limp with love for the silver and blue Snow Queen and other Fairy Tales but I do not encourage it because I also want this one for myself. If it does not sell, if nobody wants it…..obviously it may have to come to me. I will have to advise Sharon that she does not want it. But she has found George Orwell, the complete novels of Jane Austen and then she returns to Art.

Lauren stands serene. Her pocket money is intact. She moves near to the door, a signal for her mother to stop looking now. But Sharon has found an autobiography of Ernest Shepard, she cannot leave just yet.

But Lauren stands firm, she opens the door and they are out, down the street and Sharon calling back thank you, thank you…

 

Mine

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I have The Count of Monte Cristo and it is mine.  I tell people about this when they come into the shop and watch them flush with admiration or envy or disbelief or complete disinterest.

There was no need for this purchase; I have far too many books now than I can ever read.

Robert said that this is no reason to stop getting more books.

I admitted that gluttony prompted me. It is a second hand volume and, although mildly damaged, is still very handsome. It wears leather, blue and gold with crimson accessories.

It weighs as much as a small leather building.

This book has, at some point landed in a pool of water, briefly but definitely. Its underside is swollen, injured. The gold edged pages are beautiful; the book closed shows a solid gold box. But the water damage has loosened the gold edging on the bottom and it now showers me in gold whenever I pick it up, it shares its gilding with me; when I open the book to read its golden heart, more gold is thrown at me.

I keep on telling people about The Count and how I might read it in the garden on the warm evenings. I have never read The Count of Monte Cristo, only read about it…Damien said there is a TV show about it, a guy locked up like a fool and all that. Good show.

The sheer elegance of the book wins all; the sheer heft of the book wins again. And leather.

David said: you won’t like it.

One old lady said: oh dear, that uneventful thing, it went on forever.

I pack up the shop and head home through the afternoon to my good, good evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…all that light…

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I visited the Flinders University Library last Wednesday instead of opening the shop. I went there not as a student but as a visitor but I can borrow the books through my daughter who is a student there. So I do not have to borrow as a student, but as a borrower and reading where I please.

And so I am not really there at all, although I am somewhere. The agony of choice available to me in a university library when I am not a student is so indulgent that it became impossible to remember the day or the place.

It is being away in some place that contains immense possibility and invitation which it does because it is a library and a really good one. And there is also endless provocation and endless comfort, like friendship, no matter where or how the friends are placed.

I can choose as I wish and never come to the end of it. It is a pity that I am not earning a qualification or gathering a thesis with my reading but I am not. This seems gloriously wrong and terribly wasteful.

It is a diabolical experience to meet a thousand books at once and only be able to choose a few.

I chose fourteen senseless volumes for absurd and important reasons and these are those:

Chapters From Some Memoirs by Anne Thackeray Ritchie: she is the daughter of the Thackeray who wrote Vanity Fair. It contains a memory of the day she met Chopin as a child, she writes absurd lovely romances. This book is small, bound with red tape, the boards and pages cut precisely, it had no barcode; had not been borrowed since the application of any barcode,  it had to be carried gently out the back to receive a fresh tattoo.

A Lame Dog’s Diary by S. Macnaughtan, another palm sized very old volume, bright red and no barcode. Why is it there? Who has read it?

From the Porch by Lady Ritchie – this is Lady Thackeray again; in green and gold, rough cut pages, dusty, humble.

The Honey Flow by Kylie Tennant because the first line is this: Chapter one: Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads.

Dawn Powell Novels 1930 – 1942, dressed in green and black, The Library of America, heavy, fine paper like white silk, dense and divine, a thousand pages sumptuous. And the first novel (Dance Night) begins like this:

What Morrie heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far, far away. This was like no other music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood….

A Long Time Dying by Olga Masters – because of the way she describes Australia outside of the front door.

My Butterfly and Other Tales of New Japan by Hal Porter – I have been advised not to miss out on Hal Porter.

The Stolen Soprano by Compton Mackenzie- this is because in The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett,  the Queen was reading Compton Mackenzie and I always wanted to, too.

The Story of a Non- Marrying Man and Other Stories by Doris Lessing – this book is brown and gold and it was on the wrong shelf, it did not care if it was chosen or not. So I chose it.

Southerly – Volume 68, Number 2, 2008 Little Disturbances, because it has short fiction and poetry by Australian writers unknown to me, and it has Indigo in Absentia by Kirstyn McDermott which I  do know and need to read again and again etc.

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon – because it is blue and silver and massive and is the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

The Power of Delight: a Lifetime in Literature by John Bayley, which may be dull but maybe not. Dark blue, and huge, it looked so new and wistful, anxious to be read.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller because I have never heard of it or her.

The Journal to Stella by Jonathon Swift although I am not so fond of him. But I want to know what he wrote in his letters to Stella.

And then I went home to read.

 

Photography by Joshua Hibbert

 

 

 

 

 

Moby Dick

 

aaron-burden-236415.jpgA young boy came in to the shop with his father and was anxious for a copy of Moby Dick, which was his favourite book. I only had a volume that contained Moby Dick and Omoo and Typee and Israel Potter. I was doubtful of this 1700 page volume but the child reassured me that this was ok, he had already read all of these and they were as good as anything. He said that Moby Dick was a good book, as good as Star Wars or anything like that.

His father stood patiently by.

The child then said that Moby Dick is just more exciting than the other versions, it is just more exciting….than…the other versions. And it is as good as Uluru. He did not explain this last statement but instead went to another shelf to get a Star Wars Encyclopaedia which he was getting for his teacher.

I’m getting this for my teacher. He’s a really really really really big fan of Star Wars. He’ll really get into this.

He stood there, confident, pushing his glasses back to the correct position, squared up and facing the world, his enormous world full of enormous books, glowing and supreme, while his father stood patiently by.

Photography by Aaron Burden

The old lady who bought a book for her friend.

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An old lady bought a book for her dear friend. She came into the shop just on closing and it was very cold. Her friend lives in Goolwa and can no longer get out and about.

She knew precisely what he would like to read though. She knew in great detail what he already had read and she described the size and shape of each pleasure that books gave her friend who could no longer get up and go out.

She told me of his inclination for novels, for malicious characters, for historical curiosities and for Chinese food. There is a detective writer called Robert van Gulik that he loves. He will sit down to Chinese takeaway and read the novels of Robert van Gulik one after another. He liked books in hardback, he liked the heaviness of them and he liked proper paper. He always examined the spines of books and is scathing of the glued bindings. He would only tolerate glued bindings in his Robert van Gulik books. He liked the sewn books best of all, with dignified boards and a stout shape that will not stoop.

She bought him a copy of Barchester Towers and Heart of Darkness – he has already read these but they are always worth another go. She looked at the books carefully; she hoped they would not stoop.

Then she went home, with her gifts and her stout heart and her friendship that does not stoop.

Photography by Rula Sibai

Robert

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Robert reads ancient histories, unconventional science and philosophy and he loves conjecture, conflict and conspiracy. And he is writing his own book.

He follows national politics carefully and furiously and finds little to admire in our politicians. However, he is very respectful of Robert Graves, Sax Rohmer and Ainslie Roberts and has studied closely the writing of Sir John George Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon) Carl Jung and Marion Woodman. His reading list is a thousand years long.

He is fierce about government iniquities and he collects bookmarks. He is currently outraged about the situation with our power supply in South Australia and believes that no matter what happens, it is always, always and always the small local Joe that pays the cost of everything.

Every day for Robert is significant and profound – this is through his reading which he believes is revealing corruption and fraud on a global level and also through local news such as the birth of my grandsons; news which Robert believes is the most important of anything at all.

He may never finish his book but this does not bother him as for him it is the work that is important, the reading and the research and the fitting together of patterns and configurations, plots, intrigues and overarching beauty of world history.

He often says that he knows of people who do not read at all and he wonders how they do it.