“What does a mirror look at?”
Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune
“What does a mirror look at?”
Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune
On Goolwa beach the evening was in waves. Down the twelve steps we went and across the fine, clean sand that is still releasing generously the day’s heat and the ocean is kind and my family are in it and to one side the beach is cool slate and to the other a dazzling promotion of silver and lemon, olive and gold, all in waves.
The beach breathes in waves. There is no wind, there is one lone fisherman, standing, gazing out into his life, there is a family running in circles, running in spirals, the sand coughing around their feet, it is so quiet I can hear them urging fair play of the rules, Dylan!
There are three seagulls, sitting on the wind even though there is no wind. I wonder what they are waiting for.
There is no space between the sea and the sky.
There is no space between the sea and the sand.
The light moderates all the colours and they weave together, except for the tiles of orange on the horizon, everything else is stitched together, like fair play, like gladness and grief, unable to get at one without the interference of the other and everything in waves.
The tide moves in pursuit and retreat, around and past me, unmoved by me.
The fisherman is wading out into deeper water, my family are finishing, the hilarious family are making for their car, the last child trailing a blue towel across the blue evening and being told to hurry, and then we too, going home.
Yvonne continues to look in the door of the shop most mornings and ask me how the babies are. I tell her they are growing and happy. She always says: Well that’s the thing isn’t it!
When Morgan looks at his infant son, his son looks at him and they exchange evidence that each now lives for the other. Noah’s face is too small to hold in all the joy. And that’s the thing.
Outside the shop there is a father securing a sheepdog in the back of the ute. The son, about 8, stands patiently by. He asks his dad if he can get an icecream and a hero disk. His dad says: yep, soon as I tie in Baily. The son balances on the edge of the gutter and puts one finger on Baily’s nose to help and his dad says: well done. The child smiles. And that’s the thing.
Once a boy told me that he was 10 years old and going to read Brisingr. He asked his dad if he could get him Brisingr and his dad said yes. Then the child made a good joke: he said – can you get me a dragon? And his dad said: maybe… and the child laughed darkly to himself.
And that’s the thing.
Joe visited two days ago to pick up his Charmian Clift book and said that he has had a win. That he kept his every book he ever had on making furniture, but nobody wanted them. So he asked his son if HIS son, an apprentice cabinet maker might like them, and his son said: he won’t want them, just chuck them dad.
But Joe called his grandson himself and the boy said: I’ll be down on Saturday, Grandpa, keep them for me. Joe said: I’ve had a win haven’t I! And that’s the thing!
Dale’s dad told him that he should read history as it occurs. Dale said that he just wanted to read Skulduggery, all 10 of them in the right order. His dad argued for the reading of history (as it occurs) but they left with 5 Skulduggery books and no history and Dale was very happy. He carried all the books himself. And that’s the thing.
Small things are always the things.
I think that Max has super powers but my mum says that this is nonsense. When she dropped into the shop yesterday I said that Max has survived his first hot summer and she said that this is nonsense. That when she was born in Broken Hill her mum had to put the cot outside in the summer because the corrugated iron house was hotter inside than out. Her mother hung wet nappies around the edges of the cot and then the hot wind became cool. Her mum always put the cot under the pepper trees. She said the dining room table bowed in the heat of those roasting dark little iron rooms.
I said I would like to put that story on facebook and she said that facebook is nonsense, that who on earth would want to read that.
When my mum was 14 years old she made her own dress at school and wore it for a photograph sitting. I have that photograph and it is one of my favourite things. They were very poor and she only ever had one photograph taken. She said her dress was pretty good, probably the best one made and her mum had told her that this was nonsense.
Well, Max, my grandson loves colour. He leans toward colour and frowns with the sensations of colour. His head wobbles with excitement when he catches the purple of my glass necklace in the light. He leans in panting and dribbling, wanting that slab of cool glass in his mouth. But we have coloured glass slabs around the front door, too. These are wine red, mint green, champagne, butter yellow and icy pink. In the fading evening light they change character and jump and quarrel. Max stares into the hot colours and is silent but noisy, busy with breathing, and ingesting colour. Soon the red becomes purple and the greens turn to blue. The yellow turns to cider. The pink fades to clear, cool water. He stares for minute after minute at the thick glass, dripping with afternoon and evening colours.
Then later, his mother says that he won’t go to sleep and I say that this is nonsense.
One morning at the shop, Yvonne put her head in the door and called out: How’s Max? How much does he weigh? I told her and she said: God bless his dear little heart.
Well, the other evening, when it was hot, very hot, it had suddenly rained. And I was in the garden with the secateurs and then, when it rained, there was only the dark rich green, the leaves, the water running down the leaves and the silver of the secateurs. That silver under the rain was so silver.
Then it stopped raining so I went inside and brought Max outside to walk through the raining water and the raining garden.
From the doorway, it was too bright to see. So we went the short distance to the lime tree in a tub and looked carefully at the basil underneath. In that wet, hot evening light it was all emeralds. It seemed valuable. I crushed one leaf close to Max, close to his nose and we went on down the wet path, pursued by basil. Then the white cockatoos are overhead, they tear the sky with their screaming joy. Max is frowning and looking up through water and light and we stand for a long time looking up at those scribbling nuisances.
Then down again, down the path, past the Chinese Elm that is not doing well, the lavender, the rogue fig tree that we did not plant, the lemons and then beneath our feet, gum leaves, gum leaves and gum leaves. Then we are at the gate and you might be asleep.
But you are not. Your eyes are buttons, fastened to the rinsed light and the blowing gum trees.
It is the end of summer and the air is full of that strange, footless summer breathing. Why does my grandson pant in my ear when I hold him? What is he looking at? The oblongs coloured like jewels along the back wall. These are books. The horizontal streaks of the bamboo blinds on the front door framed in lozenges of coloured glass? You sit for one baby minute after another staring at these.
The grape vine, the plum tree, the fragrant basil that froths under the lemon tree. There is too much basil. The died roses, the pegs on the ground, the golden orb webs. We don’t like them, but you do.
Your head wobbles on a stalk not strong enough to hold still. When you have completed your wobbling examination of a thing you grumble slightly. Time to move on. But once you stared thoughtfully at a lemon for nearly three minutes. Drenched in yellow, we could finally move on. Then we are under the wisteria and startled by purple. The whole house is breathing Max: powder, soap and milk, light, shapes and heat.
I showed David a copy of Cultural Amnesia by Clive James and he said I was naughty because he had to have that book. After all it was Clive James. He said: Oh God, I don’t know what to do. I am chasing up Rimbaud and now you have me with the Cultural Amnesia. He said that all of his indecision comes from his sad childhood.
A lady bought a copy of Penguin Bloom and then took me out to see her own rescued magpie, perching on the edge of a basket on the back seat of the car. She said that he is blind in one eye and the family just adore him. She said there was nothing they would not do for him.
Sharon rang to urge me to find a volume of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, all of them in the one volume. She said she is having a bad day.
Robert said that despite his weariness he will never give up the quest for history and the truth of life. He ordered a copy of Aboriginal Men of High Degree by A. P. Elkin.
A mother and her two young children were looking for dinosaur books. They said that they loved David Attenborough. The son said that he also loved dinosaurs, owls and geckos. His small sister said that she loved owls and ballet. Their mother said that there was not much time for her to read much anymore. She looked happy.
Outside the window, there are tradesmen, leaning against their car, drinking iced coffee and smoking. They are arguing about scaffolding. One says that he is sick of all this shit. Then he says he is going back to the bakery. His mates look at him and keep on smoking.
A very young woman showed me her six month old son. She bought a copy of Goodnight Owl and told me that she has just left home to make it on her own. Her pram had masking tape wound around the handles. She said she was going to read to him every night. She gazed at him the whole time, and he, with huge dark eyes, gazed back and he was smiling the whole time.
Serenity told me that she had to leave school early. Her father, who was carrying all the shopping, looked very tired.
Most days, at some time, I run into the edge of the exhaustion shelf and usually I cannot see the reason for it. It is always when I am not in my bookshop.
An old lady went outside and indicated to me through the window which book she wanted. It would have been easier for her to have remained inside and just picked up the volume from the table. It was The Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke. She took it from me and said: this is the one, his will be wonderful and thank you.
It is Valentine’s Day and a man is so happy that I had a copy of Wombat Divine. Later in the day he came back and gave me a red rose because I had a copy of Wombat Divine and he was going to surprise his wife with it.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blesings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
The beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
A young girl, about twelve, galloped past the door when I was opening up one morning and her father said: there’s your book lady, say hello, and the child trumpeted a huge hello through her custard tart and filled the air with coconut. She said: do you remember when I came in? I agreed to the memory and then she told me that The Diary of Anne Frank was really good. More of her tart dropped to the ground and her father said: careful with the cake.
I am still setting up for the day. I am preoccupied and slow and there is a wasp on top of the biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. There are two people waiting patiently and soon the husband begins to explain to me that he is a prolific reader. Then he said: look out there’s a moth in here and his wife said to him: you must have opened your wallet!
Maree talked about reading Huckleberry Finn and about the difficulties of being a grandparent. She said she felt unappreciated and that the other grandparents had an unfair advantage. She held onto the door so that other people could not get through and when she felt the door move she gave a small scream.
After she left I thought that life is not easy for anyone.
David is here and he watches her leave too and he said: goodness… and then he talked about Peter Porter and Clive James. He said that he engages emotionally, deeply, with these poets. He said that soon he is going to explore the Indian Mystics.
On Wednesday Robert told me that once he ate a roast chicken at a pub and it was a poor meal indeed. He told the publican: this is a poor meal and the publican sacked the cook. Then he said cryptically that this is just like that damn fool in America. He said it’s time someone did something about that too, and that he is about to add his voice to the battle soon as he has paid all his bills.
I am sorting and shelving books and considering my own tangled reading. It won’t stay still or become coherent. I am reading Olive Kitteridge because someone lent it to me and it is tough and fabulous. And I have finished the Edith Wharton, the stories of New York and sometimes in my head I am hearing Olive Kitteridge and sometimes I am hearing Edith Wharton. Sometimes they may be the same person. But they are not. And my daughter brought home from the university library another volume of the Westerly, Australian poems and short stories and I plough though the glossy thick pages with joy because for some reason I have missed out on the Australian things. These heavy journals are full of words and sand and heat and the back streets of Sydney and our own awful history.
I asked Kody: how do you keep all the books and things organised and not mixed up in your head. He said: that’s easy.
That was all he said, as if there was no more needed. That it is not a problem anyway so why was I asking it. I am always impressed with Kody who has read all of the Deltora Quest books three times. I said to him: but what about all the different countries? And he said: you mean the different lands? Like Araluen and that? That’s easy.
One morning the shop was full of grandmothers. This had never happened before.
One grandma told me about her tiny brilliant granddaughter; that she was so very brilliant and could read anything. The child sat still, magnificent in her stroller and then suddenly flung all of the chosen picture books to the floor. The other grandmothers looked away politely.
Map of Literature by Martin Vargic
One is not enlightened
Basho, The Complete Haiku
I am reminded each morning that now it is cold. I have lit up a string of red lights around A. S. Byatt and Virginia Woolf to remind me of warmth and brave living. People look at the lights across these books and say: this looks so warm with the red lights there. I have added Kate Grenville and also John Kennedy Toole, who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces and then died before it was published and before he knew how important he was.
My fist visitor today, after commenting on the beginning of winter asked for Of Mice and Men. She had always wanted to read John Steinbeck and also thought that my coloured lights were nice, just the thing for a dark day.
A young browser looked at The Imitation of Christ and murmured:”…well, maybe not today…”
Robert is going to challenge an unfair Centrelink request and he does not care if it takes the rest of his life, so long as he still has time to read.
One customer told his friend that it was a bloody good day and his friend answered that this was true and that she was full of water. He said that slowly the ground will become good with it.
A lady told me that she wanted to read The Diary of Samuel Pepys, some kind of reader’s version. I said that even that is just over a thousand pages. She decided she was up for it. Then she told me that when she was a librarian, the woman at the next desk did absolutely nothing and yet still managed to look busy. She said that this woman kept it up for about 10 years – and this is only a little longer than Pepys kept up his diaries!
In The Collected Dorothy Parker I read this: “They sicken of the calm who know the storm.” Dorothy Parker was an American author, poet and critic who wrote across the early 1900s. She was a brilliant writer and she was very funny and very sad. This made it agonising for her to sit still – but clearly she knew this because she said it: “They sicken of the calm who know the storm.” And she wrote with unfailing honesty her stories and poetry and thoughts. This means that we can read them and then honestly claim our own stories and pain, too.
Although we are encouraged not to, I think that it can be very useful to sit still and risk a seeming achievement of nothing. This could make the activity of reading a challenging one. Perhaps this is why many people bring in printed reading lists…so show some progress.
A grandparent expressed her concern for her grandsons that could not sit still. She asked for some picture books about farm animals: she was going to begin reading to them and introduce a new kind of activity.
Reading is slow and accumulative.
I listened to a reader tell me many details about Tom Keneally’s Commonwealth of Thieves and I was convinced to try Mary called Magdalene by Margaret George.
“So, you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”
Dorothy Parker to Norman Mailer after publishers had convinced Mailer to replace the word with a euphemism, ‘fug,’ in his 1948 book, “The Naked and the Dead.”
Photography by Martin Dorsch