“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
Bohumil Hrabal, Too loud a solitude
A lady came into the shop last week, paid for her books, and went to leave. At the door she gave a small scream, came back, and leapt at the biographies. Then she straightened up, and said, ‘Ambushed again. It always happens to me.’
She came back with a biography of Shane Gould, and said that every time she tries to leave a bookshop, right at the minute of departure, something stirs on a nearby shelf and pulls her back in. It happens every time. This is how she gets her best books. ‘You can’t just try and leave. You can’t ignore it. If you read like a mad person, it’ll get you in the end.’ She looked really happy. Then she left.
All day I thought about that!
(Bookend by Tom Taggart)
In the shop, I get told about things in bits and pieces. There is never enough time for customers to explain the whole story – which in their minds is one complete coherent and catastrophic realization- but it only gets to me in fragments.
‘The Russians are a cruel people. I prefer the Druids. King Arthur, for example. And Lancelot was a complete arsehole. You can’t tell me he didn’t have something strange going on with the Danes.’
Readers are always enthusiastic and visionary.
‘Easter is for throwing things out. That’s how I was raised. Read Winnie the Pooh, and you’ll understand.’
‘I had to confront the manager about the hot cross buns.’
And they are mysterious.
‘I’ve read all of these. Brilliant books. I might get that one anyway. And you’ll see something across the road in a minute. At least you will if you’ve read book 4 of these.’
And they are confident.
‘Did you know that the writer of Tarzan made it all up?’
A reader brought a copy of The End of Certainty by Paul Kelly over to me. He said, ‘There’s a lot we can learn from the Americans. But as for Blair, just leave him out of it.’ He bought three other biographies. He said, ‘Luckily, there’s no end to it.’
Children try harder. They watch your eyes when they talk and gauge your enthusiasm and your comprehension accurately. They tell the story properly, loyal to the facts and inventing nothing. In ‘Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll’, Kelsey lives in Pakistan and needs a friend. Her and her Nanna get her a doll. Called Amy Jo. They have a hard adventure. But they are all right in the end.’
They explain succinctly why they want a particular book.
‘It’s because I want it.’
Illustration by Inga Moore
People think you don’t know what’s in it. You do.
People think you have read it all. You haven’t.
People think you are trying to read it all. You aren’t.
People think it’s up for borrows. It isn’t.
People think it’s in alphabetical order. As if.
Those of us who collect are indulging in something without end, although we don’t start out that way. We soon learn (that Terry Pratchett is right, and ) to accept that our libraries will eventually control us, and that our collections live way beyond any trivial hope for order we may nurse.
Libraries sprout in any direction they want, and this is because our capacity to be nourished by literature is vigorous and unpredictable. You can be hauled anywhere. It is ok to go from a biography of Leonardo De Vinci to a history of Myanmar and from there to Moominvalley and then back to clocks.
Margaret Atwood said, A reader can never tell if it’s a real thimble or an imaginary thimble, because by the time you’re reading it, they’re the same. It’s a thimble. It’s in the book.
I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.
It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.
But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.
I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.
Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.
Many people ask me about these. So here they are.
I have books in every room. I started collecting books at age seven, but I don’t know why. I now have about twelve thousand books. I am going to read them all. They are shelved by colour.
They were once shelved beautifully in alphabetical order, but when I moved the shelves each country lost most of its citizens. Now Terry Pratchett sits next to Margaret Atwood and does not mind. The histories and books of immediate interest are shelved bum down and pages up so I cannot see who they are. I don’t mind. The children’s flats are out on the floor, hundreds of them, where the grandsons squat and lean over them, point, and shout, and drop bits of ginger biscuits over the pages. The books lay there flattened, creased, and joyful. Every single room has shelves of books. Once, a friend’s family gave me their library, and it lives here, has braided itself amongst those already here, Russian history and Judy Blume, Greek Myths and Harry Potter companionable every night.
One room has a shelf with books that earned a place there because of their colour. One must be bright and weighty. Thus the Cairo trilogy is there. Also Carpentaria, and a set of Trollopes in peacock blue, a fat boxy collection of striped world classics and Geronimo Stilton, that wondrous mouse and his sister, Thea, even more astonishing. Another shelf is of books I’m going to read. This is a good category. It has 954 books.
One shelf is all red. One is books from when I was young. That I’m still going to read. I have a guest room for guests. It has literature and guests are expected to read it if they are still sober when they go to bed. Books dressed in leather have a shelf. Old stuff has a shelf. Books too big to shelve have a table. Books I am going to part with have a wall. These have been there for twenty years.
Books I just got have a chair. This has become two chairs, and here is where I carry books home from the shop in case customers get them before me. I look at these to remind myself that I have a problem.
Collecting books for collections is intensely enjoyable. Many people do it, especially young readers. It doesn’t matter what the book is, if it fits a collection, then it is worth having. I now do it myself. If a book has been published by The Nonesuch Press, I want it. I don’t know why and seldom bother to worry about it. Books in collections are slices of something good; fruity, restorative, rich. When a reader says, ‘I’m adding this to my collection’, I know what they are referring to. They are keeping it for later. Later is a realm of time ahead of us that has seats, shelves, warmth, and wooden tables of quiet food.
A set of books is something you can enter (like a realm), and inside it is a complex place that is never still and never complete.
Images from PenguinBookADay
It was busy today. I don’t know why, just a usual Friday with ducks on the road. I had to dust all the shelves. There was a tiny nest in a hollow in the dust where I usually park. In it were two small hopeful blue eggs. I parked carefully so not to disturb. Over the road people are slewed about on the lawns with cans of coke and paper bags.
A mother came in with her two children. An older boy in sunglasses and earphones. A younger girl in a blue sweater. They bought a stack, and one choice was a leather bound volume, The Complete Shakespeare in black, gold, and toffee. Heavy. Gold edges. I said, ‘Who gets this one?’, and the child answered, ‘Me’, as if I should have known.
I was impressed. She volunteered nothing more. But on the way out she turned back to me and said she was making a library in her bedroom. It would have hidden shelves. One shelf would open because it was actually a door, and inside, another room, and in that room another shelf would open because is was actually a magic door, and in that room another magic door, and in that room another one….
I sat back stricken with envy.
Image by Elina Ellis
I always wonder this. Where do the books go? What sort of libraries does everyone else have? There must be some enormous collections out there. I know that, if allowed to, libraries take on a life of their own that is way beyond anything we can direct. People mention this.
Some visitors carry out armfuls. Some just one. But it’s the same thing; the intensity of the capture is identical whether one or some. It’s impossible to tell another person why or even exactly what one has found. Last Tuesday, John carried seven large volumes of history, in two Woolworths shopping bags. He was bent over with the weight when he went out the door.
I said, ‘But where’s your car?’ And he said, ‘No, no, I’m all right,’ while looking down at the bags he was carrying with eyes like jewels.
Do children make libraries? They are particular about their books, staring at covers for a long time. Once a child stood over a table, examining an illustration, tapping it as he stared, not hearing me, or the traffic, not even the thunder storm outside that pushed all of Strathalbyn under cover. When he bought it, he walked outside into the rain without noticing that either.
Some young readers have by memory every title on their shelves. They describe the size of their collection by how good the books are that are in it. Thus a collection of six books can challenge a national state library in terms of significance.
Illustration by Erin McGuire
The divine Italo Calvino identifies the real trouble with bookshops….
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you.
But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extends for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written.
And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid manoeuvre you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books Ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.
Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them….”
Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler