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.  

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

“The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.”

The books I am asked for every day represent the kind of reading that people are looking for right now in their life. The books don’t fit any category that I can see, except the category of The Reading That Is Needed Right Now.  

The readers who have requested books recently are aged between 7 and 82. They are locals, visitors, and travellers. Some are students, and most are young readers. A few are requesting books for others but most are collecting for themselves. Most older readers say, ‘I don’t really need any more books, but I’m getting them anyway.’ Young readers say, ‘I need more, but I’m only getting these today.’ The requests never end.

Book requests include:

Asterix in Switzerland

The Pioneers of the North-West of South Australia by Norman Richardson

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Anything by Christopher Fowler

William Blake

Winnie the Pooh

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

The Odyssey

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Anything by Daniel Silva

All the Lucinda Riley Seven Sister books

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Any books about Paris

Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass

Book 3 of the Skulduggery series

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Any Wings of Fire books

Anything by Henry James

Dune by Frank Herbert

Possum Magic by Mem Fox

Absolutely anything by Pittacus Lore

Any atlas of the world – as modern as possible

Anything about Vikings

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961)

When the home library loses its mind

When I was young and had time to loll about, my brothers used to pull a random paperback from my shelves and ask me to identify it using only the gap it left. I always got them right. I knew where each book knelt as though in its own benediction each night. The Last Unicorn. The Incredible Journey. I Heard the Owl Call my Name, Josie goes Home. Every single volume of The Bobbsey Twins. When they weren’t there, I knew.

 ‘Give it back. I never said you could.’

I kept my library tight and worried about it at school. I imaged wrongly that it was of value to everyone and that everyone was dazzled by its kaleidoscope of broken skies and the urge to not travel anywhere but through it.

I was mistaken. Everyone has their own dazzle. What was actually dazzling was only my infatuation with it. But I continued collecting. Later, when I had my own bookshop, I would meet fellow dazzlers. They range from the age of five to ninety five, and I would know them by the way they turn on an axis and can’t decide.

Now our home has been rinsed through with family; a thousand summers. L plates. Exams. Crying, and broken microwave plates. Near misses. Calamity, and needing to reorganize the towels. Grandsons that read and climb and fall out of the mulberry tree and come for a bandaid. The library standing back and looking on with approval.

The collections continue, swollen and mixed, with broadened shoulders and matchbox cars around their ankles. Books have moved. The children’s flats have burst upward like pancakes and newcomers stand around waiting for a place. Joan Didion, Alexis Wright, Lahiri Jhumper, A Gentleman in Moscow, everything by Marie Darrieussecq, Kim Scott, Gerald Murnane. Books have gone; don’t know where.

The library has been forced back into order, but it didn’t last. I pushed all the shelves to new places to make new spaces, so now D is next to T, and Asterix looks at Beatrix Potter, and I can’t find anything, but so far that’s ok. I know where Bill Bryson probably is, and I know where the Text Classics are because I just read The Women in Black and put it back. There are plastic monkeys clustered underneath Little House on the Prairie where they are having kindy, and Owl Babies is always out on the floor.

A library whirls around its readers; it is never still and never the same, and its life can never end.

Image by Vladimir Fedotko

Because when I read

“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

Ambushed again

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)

The lovely ongoing enthusiasm of readers

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.’

And emphatic.

‘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

The thing about a massive library is that

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.

Oh no….

When D. H. Lawrence fell

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.  

My books at home

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.