How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.

No Go, the Bogeyman

How do people select a book? Well, I know it’s intensely private. Books are sharp. Readers look at them from every angle, examining especially carefully the blade.

Books, like any tool, fulfil a purpose if they are good enough. They can remove (with one sweep) a lifetime of tiring and inaccurate responsibilities. And, they can move inwards to the core of beliefs, at best an uncomfortable and confronting experience. For instance, I read Ethan Frome, and realized that I was normal. Only a blade can do this.

Readers come to the shop and pause over books for long periods of time. There is always this pause. Then they decide and carry the book to the counter.

I am respectful no matter what the book is.

I once chose a book called No Go, the Bogeyman (after a pause). I haven’t read it yet. It’s a history of terror by Marina Warner. The kind of terror that comes softly and sits with you at night. I don’t know why I bought it, but I treasure it.

Painting by Sasha Beliaev

The Ideal Reader

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A fisherman from Kingston came in looking for Terry Pratchett and told me that once he bought a Terry Pratchett in Mt Gambier. He said the beach along the Kingston coast is a mess but that is the fault of developers and the council. He said that Terry Pratchett would have said a thing or two about that! Hahaha! I agreed with this and he went out very pleased.

I remember one morning this week, a man was waiting for his small daughter. But she had found The Lightning Bolt by Kate Forsyth and this book is book five of The Chain of Charms series. She was about seven years old, kneeling on the floor to read the book and her father was moving impatiently. His work boot nudged and toppled Animalia and she rebuked him silently with a lifted finger. He stared through the window, rattling keys, obedient. Suddenly she stood and showed him the cover; she was radiant and suddenly, so was he.

A man said that his hallway was lined with bookshelves and it was the length of a cricket pitch. His wife said she did not think it was this long.

I have finished with the Edith Wharton and I read the best stories in this book twice over so as not to miss anything. I am not reading anything else, not yet, because the story Mrs Manstey’s View will not let anything else in.

I was asked for Batavia by Peter Fitzsimons and Secret Servant: The Life of Sir Stewart Menzies by Anthony Cave Brown. This reader told me that Nagal’s Journal, which he found here last time, is the best thing he has ever read. He said that the diaries on the ships, as kept by the captains are the best reading there is. He squared his shoulders and stood back to see if I might disagree.

Three teenage girls were talking and talking. One asked for Sherlock Holmes. She hopped up and down when she told me how much she loved Sherlock Holmes. But sadly, I had none. She said: imagine this, imagine Sherlock Holmes in hardback. I really want to find this…Oh my God.

Her friend said: look at this, I am so into this. Oh my gosh guys. What will I do? Oh my God, I am going to have this.

What is it?

It’s Harry Potter. They all bent over the volume, close together and suddenly speechless. They whisper: it’s a hardback, it’s in another language. Oh my God. They place the volume on the counter and look at me dazed. She says: I collect them. Then they left, leaning on each other, hilarious, rapt.

A tall man in front of me examines the Wordsworth classics and is intense and frowning. His wife is amongst the Art. He leans back; as usual there is nothing for him! He returns to Art but his wife is not finished. She says: I’m not nearly done. She is frowning now too; he moves away and she stops frowning.

One man was intent upon the histories. Then he came away abruptly from the shelf and regarded his son who was texting angrily outside the front door. He said he might come back another time. He closed the door politely but also angrily.

I was told that Dick Francis wrote better books than his son. A lady told me that her fifteen year old grandson loved to read fantasy series but she was going to buy him a biography of a yachtsman instead.

A very tall and smiling man bought Martin Chuzzlewit and said that Charles Dickens had the most extraordinary way with words. He said he was reading them all, he did not like Bleak House but the rest, just marvellous indeed.

I have only read two books by Charles Dickens and they are not easily forgotten. I told him that when Daniel Quilp drowns in The Old Curiosity Shop I was glad! He said: yes indeed!

Two men together were talking about their teenage sons. One man said that his son would not show him how to use the remote for the television because he learns too slowly. His friend said: hahaha.

They asked me for a copy of Watership Down.

I was asked for books on card tricks and a young girl showed me a plaster dragon she had just bought from the goodwill shop. I was asked for the Wind in the Willows.

A man said he had a lot of time for Willa Cather. He asked me had I read her. I said that I planned to but right now I am with Edith Wharton and he said …AHHH…and he looked very happy. He told me that when I get to Willa Cather to read Death Comes for the Archbishop first.

I am floundering and falling amongst all of the titles, all of the must reads and the best reads and the don’t miss reads. It is a good way to be.

 

“The ideal reader is the translator, able to dissect the text, peel back the skin, slice down to the marrow, follow each artery and each vein, and then set on its feet a whole new sentient being. The ideal reader is not a taxidermist.”

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader by Alberto Manguel

 

 

 

 

 

 

You mean all the different lands and that? That’s easy!

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snails are a good thing too…

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I was asked for Oakleaf Bearers, Erak’s Ransome and Heir of Fire. I was asked about Theodore Roethke. I was told about the Country Women’s Association and the Calendar of Cakes and I delighted a reader because I had book one of Game of Thrones.

An old lady told me that her hardcover edition of Winnie the Pooh with illustrations by Ernest Shepard disappeared with her daughter in law. She said she would not go into the rest of that story.

Outside it is warm and quiet. A man tells me that there is no wall of their home that is not filled with books.

I continue with The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. I try to portion them off and read fairly but it is not easy. It is like eating a long rope of good liquorice, it is not possible to be sensible with it. Mrs Manstey’s View, A cup of Cold Water, The Quicksand, The Rembrandt…..

A child lurches forward and hurls a book onto the counter. It is I’ll Show You a Blue Kangaroo and I catch it neatly. His mother comes forward and she is horrified. He regards her closely. He said: you said I hap to. She said no, no, no, no, not like that. He continues to regard her curiously. He said again: you said I hap to.

His young mother apologises and tells me they are from Yorkshire, she said her son is unusual, he loves books but most of all he loves snails. She looks worried. He is now staggering forward with three more books and Robert,  who has just come in, tells him: good work! He drops all of the books on Robert’s shoes and Robert is delighted. He says to the young mother that snails are a good thing too.

He is here to pick up his Journey to the West by Anthony C. Yu in four volumes two of which I do not have…but his is attending to the small boy and the scattered story books and does not hear me.

 

Photography by Signefotar