Are these books disturbing?

Syd Wachs.jpg

A child leaned into and over the window display. She froze into position, arms outstretched. She told her mother she was being part of the book display so that people would stop and look in. Her mother asked her if she was being sensible.

There are two books here by Australian author Eleanor Spence: Me and Jeshua and Miranda Going Home. They are historical novels for young readers, novels of first century Palestine and the friendship of two children with Jeshua, a carpenter’s son. They are memorable books and I still have my own copies. A mother is here and her children are on strict reading lists. They must not be exposed to magic, make believe or historical inaccuracies. She asked me: are these books disturbing and will they upset my child’s head?

I said: very likely.

A very young reader brought Animal Farm to the counter. I said: are you studying this text at school. She said: no, and then quickly left. I felt that I had been intrusive. Who can explain why they want to read George Orwell.

There is a family here that visit often. They brought their small bikes inside for safety although they left the sleeping baby outside, parked beside the window. The youngest boy indicated the baby and explained the situation: This is my Uncle Lisa’s baby and her was born just this morning. (She is 10 weeks old, said the mother). Then the small boy mentioned a library card…he means a bookmark, explained the brother kindly and he has had his hair cut today, this morning. The smaller boy inclined his head so I could see in detail the bristling new haircut.

I read another story by Djuna Barnes and it is disturbing.

Peggy who is indomitable, who is 84, came in for Daniel Silva. She is only reading thrillers these days. I showed her my Virago and she said oh God!

She looked briefly at James Patterson and said luckily she got over him years ago. She is moving to Penrith but will return to SA if she ever gets ill. But then she remembered that she is ill, her liver….but she thought she will give old Penrith a go anyway. And then come back. I insisted she might like the Virago modern classics but she said she gave up reading shit like that years ago. I said, as I always say to her, don’t go and she answers as usual: you’ll get over it.

Robert also came in and talked to me about the Pythagorean comma. I asked him what he does when he comes across a disturbing book. He said that he would read it.

I was asked for all of the war biographies by Spike Milligan. John said that he had them all once and his best mate borrowed them and refused to return them. And just as he was about to go to court over them, his mate died. The books disappeared of course…which is typical of that family…

I was asked for The Mining History of the Klondike.

I was asked how to change the region on a DVD.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes while a lady in amongst the children’s books laughed and laughed because her granddaughter is so incredible. The grandchild, who is tiny, urged her grandparent through the door but stood in the way of pram so that nobody could move. The grandmother laughed and laughed again and said: isn’t she a trick? The child walked up the street, walking backwards next to the pram and reading as she went.

Sydney told me about some people he knew on Westwater Road.

I was asked for Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel. The man read to me the first line of the book.

When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.

He said: isn’t that a disturbing first line…

I said that I had never read it and he told me I ought to as it is brilliant and has won important literary awards. He said that the author is Australian and the book is unsettling.

I think about this book Questions of Travel

A lady spends a long time looking at two little carved owls that sit on top of a neat stack of books and the books are all red. There is a copy of Pride and Prejudice bound in ruby leather in there, it glows but she only has eyes for the owls…she bends forward to examine the owls more closely, she is enchanted by the little owls. Her husband calls her to look at a Complete Shakespeare but she will not answer him.

Last night I read a history essay in a journal called Westerly, about which I know nothing except that it is published in Western Australia. The Flinders University library has these bound and shelved in endless heavy rows and I have borrowed two of them because I liked the way that they are heavy. And that is the only reason I brought two volumes home.  And in one of them is a history essay and it is called: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two by Brian Willis and it is about our history of the treatment of the Indigenous Nations of WA during the Second World War. And about this I have known nothing my whole life and about this I am left limp with horror.

At the end of the day Robert dropped in again to tell me that Medicare is plotting to destroy him but he will not let them succeed. I said: Robert you must keep reading. He said triumphantly that he will keep reading as soon as he sorts out his glaucoma test.

Then I told him about the essay I had read: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two and that I was left limp with horror. And he said: good, you should be.

Photography by Syd Wachs






…like butter through mosquito netting…


A child rode past on a scooter. He said: a bookshop….. AND it’s open!

A woman and two friends attend the same reading group. They are here to browse. The leader of the group is a champion reader and she has read everything.

I saw her indicate The Count of Monte Cristo, a book that is still here, loyal in blue and gold leather, but still not chosen, heavy and magnificent. She said: who would even bother with this. She went back to Her List. The Count was not on it. She said she had learned to speed read and it was a marvellous thing…

…but I don’t think that you should hustle through The Count. If you did you might miss the part when he falls in love with the prosecutor’s daughter. And this part is important.

I do not think you should hurry through Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

You might miss the mountain and how it was called the Phoenix of the Sky and when Luo whispered the name of the forbidden western author and we discover that it is Balzac… and worst of all, we could gently slip through the story and not realise we can read lingeringly and down to the beating heart of the book.

I can see that it might be possible to miss the beating heart of a book.

But this lady was generous and passionate. She was devoted to literature. Everything I had piled next to me, lent by customers to me, she examined. She had read everything. She judged competently – everything. She looked at the Pepys, at his portrait on the cover. I thought that he looked back, insolent, amused. She had not read and did not choose the Pepys.

David contemplates past pain through what he reads now, examining every sentence, every word, every letter, which he then replaces with great care and the utmost respect. There is an Indian writer he likes and he can only speak of him with a facial expression. There are no words. When I read Kingfishers Catch Fire, I did not think it was written for me. I thought it was written for itself. But there it was, standing there for me to have and have it I did. That includes the butter yellow stone walls and the mint green of crockery and the rich aching scent of sandalwood and the smoke and the furious villagers and blood. Those things became mine too. The colours became mine. The chance to see raspberry and jade side by side became mine. The fear of the mountain children of the Himalayan Kashmir; mine, and the reason to break off a small (stolen) bough of an apple tree, mine. I have read it seven times. It is written by Rumer Godden.

If you dash through Kingfishers Catch Fire you might miss… simply everything.

A child, a little girl whispered to me the entire story of Puff the Magic Dragon. She was sad about it. She said that Jackie Paper, he grew up. He mother offered her The Wind in the Willows but she said no. (The heartbeat of one book cannot be duplicated or extended by that of another).The child said that the dragon ate strings and things. She made a small face to show what it might be like to eat string.

Two small sisters in the front room overhear a mother and child alight from the car directly outside the window. The mother says to the boy: I do not like your attitude. The girls inside glance at one another and lift their shoulders. They duck their heads and smile significantly at each other.

Robert stops by to tell me that he has had nine pianos over the years but each of them was destroyed by people who were drunk at the time. Also his guitar was smashed. He said that The Arts are always under attack.

John wobbled past the door on his bike; there were lemons and a Lonely Planet Guide in the case on the front. He must be back from Tasmania.

I am reading Smoke and Other Early Stories by Djuna Barnes. I am reading it because it is a Virago Modern Classic, it has been lent to me and it has a nice cover. In the first story, The Terrible Peacock, there is a woman called The Terrible Peacock and her hair is piled high and terribly red and shines even in the darkness. Someone is waiting to meet her and he notices her hair:

The moon shone through it like butter through mosquito netting.

I am happy to have not missed the moon like butter and also, what it might be like to eat string.

Photography of moon artist: Leonid Tishkov