There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.
Zora Neale Hurston (author: Their Eyes Were Watching God)
There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.
Zora Neale Hurston (author: Their Eyes Were Watching God)
Andrew has a journal with every book he wants written in a neat list. The other morning he showed me the next list – about 60 books.…. can I please find them…?
He reads history.
But now he has added John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Solzhenitsyn, and he almost shouts. ‘There’s so much. So much. It’s so great. Where’s my glasses?’
He turns around in circles as he speaks, checking the other shelves, forgetting about his glasses.
He says, ‘My God, that’s Brubeck you’re playing. Good for the mind.’
His glasses are in his hand. He puts them on and stacks up his books to carry out.
I caution him. He tends to read as he walks.
Outside, some young men are walking past, leaning forward into the wind, moving fast. One of them is yelling to the other:
‘I’m not saying the footy oval, I’m not saying that…’
Andrew, eyes on Kafka, moves gently in front of them. They look up, surprised, and part abruptly to let him through. They resume.
‘It’s not the footy oval, it was the other way….’
Artwork by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)
Alan came into the shop today to pick up some books. He wanted to talk about The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (which he saw on TV last night).
Alan has a book in which he copies down carefully all the books he wants to read. The list includes authors, publishers, dates, and significant quotations. He reads these out to me. When he has finished all these books, he will find more titles listed in the back of them. Then he will come back again with another list. He said he’s on an endless journey of thinking. These days though, he needs a sleep every now and again as well. Then he wakes up and is off again. He found four good books today. All history. He loves history – all that going back in time, looking at what happened. Twice he left and came back with something he forgot to tell me. Again to recommend a certain book to me. Again to lend me a book worth reading. He is generous, joyous, and wonderful.
Artwork by Peter de Seve
Louis came back.
He wanted Marcel Proust, Alain de Botton, Jared Diamond, Karen Armstrong and Saul Bellow.
Louis walks slowly but reads fast. He has parked some way down the street and later, I help him with the books, pack the shining bundles into the back seat with the old suitcase and the eggs. He says, thanks very much, indeed, yes, for the winter reading. I love winter, it’s for reading. I’ll get that Shakespeare out you know, it’s been put to the back again.
As though his library was alive and doing things behind his back. Which they do.
When he arrived, he had stopped at the counter and breathed deeply a few times. He always does this, he says it’s to get in the stride of things. Of reading, which is active, chaotic and shattering, especially if you read like Louis.
He says I talk too fast. When I said, here are the Primo Levis you wanted, he says, wait, which ones are they? I’ll tell you why I wanted these. He tells me a story of reading and love.
When I say, here is the Botton book you wanted (about Proust), he says, oh yes, now I need Proust of course. Wait, tell me more about Botton, is he Swiss or French? He sounds French. But I heard he is British. I heard he is amazing. Remind me.
He also reminds me not to talk too fast.
He wants to read about Gandhi. He wants the best biography there is. He says that biographers are artists, artists of the world, artist of us, we MUST consider them. He lists all the biographies of Mahatma Gandhi he has already read. It sounds like all of them to me. But it isn’t. It isn’t enough: there is another. He holds out his hands, making a cradle that rocks gently, perfection.
I agree, I will find it. He says, there is always time.
Then, finally, he turns to go, but only after an interview that detailed Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, (The Gnostic Gospels), A History of Water, who wrote that? Who wrote The History of Insanity? I saw it somewhere. Tell me about Barchester Towers, I saw it as a series, had the guy from Harry Potter in it, brilliant. Is it a series? I tell him it is, thousands of pages, a commitment, and Louis straightens up, tall with joy.
He will go home, lit with passion, for reading, for history, the earth, mistakes, insanity, water, salt and sand, Gandhi, why and when, how.
A customer ordered The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel. This is because he had read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and needed to know more. As much as possible. He told me about stone and stone blocks and builders and tools, the designing and carving and balancing and how they knew what to do with light, and about carving; that was just magic!
I said I’d try to find one. He said, that was beaut, that with the internet and everything it was marvelous what books you could find these days. He couldn’t wait to get it, he’d read about it, how it was the best one to explain how cathedrals were built. He asked me to please post it to Cummins, that he was going home to his farm and had a lot of stone breaking to do. That anyone who said there was no stone in the ground at Cummins was wrong, it was everywhere. He had some long days ahead of him, probably wouldn’t be off the tractor until 8pm for a while but that still left a bit of daylight for reading about cathedrals.
Marble carving by Mathew Simmonds
There is a new customer here today, a child, a boy who has sat reading though three volumes of Minecraft while his mother is in plays and poetry. He eventually came to the counter and held up the books. He said that his brother reads them but really only looks at the pictures. He smiles at me, thinking of someone so little as to only look at the pictures.
He tells me that Minecraft is about Vikings and swords and armour and trading. You have to trade. He says that it’s history without you knowing. His face is lit with ideas and kindness, wanting to share, hoping I would get it. He said that reading the Minecraft books made him want to read Emily Rodda and Rowan.
He tells me there are stones and ropes and you have to help yourself, it’s about the old days and it’s clever. Some kids just play it. But you have to know that it’s history without saying it. I know about the history. Then you will get it. You can build with it, build things like Rome.
Now I am in Melbourne, in the city centre and in a bookshop myself and there are two notable things. Next to the political histories, two men are arguing over a book and the book is about the history of water, it is called Elixir, A Human History of Water by Brian Fagan. I know because after they had left I went over and looked at the book they had left there. There is trouble because both men are expert water historians and also expert readers and they are interested in everything. They left together, they walked with great energy, their faces, unhappy, showing the strain of maybe having to be interested in everything.
The other thing is in the area for comics in this shop. There are two boys there, about ten years old, they are sitting under the display of comics and reading one each, cross legged. One boy said that he didn’t get it. He didn’t get why they sank everything and how come the two main guys lost all their powers. How come that happened? How come they just didn’t take the rucksack with them the whole time? The other boy said that, no, that didn’t even matter, just keep reading, it’s pretty cool how the map comes back and it all makes sense, it’s pretty cool. What you have to do is only read out of one eye, just shut one eye as well. If you read out of one eye, you will get it and see the main things, you don’t have to see everything, just the main small things that you hardly see, like that door and how it points to something. Then he said: when you get to the end, tell me all the stuff you see because I need to know some more stuff to get the powers back, ok? They agreed. They both looked pretty happy.
Robert said that his books and his reading keep him so inspired and compelled to keep on with his own writing that when his friends come over and ask him what he is writing about (and then laugh when he tells them) that he just doesn’t mind.
He said that the reading gives him the third eye of salvation because this is what, say, Dante does when you read him properly, etc. Makes you see in colour, etc.
He said he makes everybody a cup of coffee and they all say: come on Robert, give it a break and he says: but I can’t…
Today he is at the shop looking for a particular journal of Egyptian Archaeology….he says the world is a rich place, yielding more reading than he can ever do. And he laughs, so happy with his rich perplexing world and all the books still to read to write.
Sculpture by Eoghan Bridge
Jacqui is 83 and she visited the shop this morning looking for books about the history of Adelaide. She told me that when she was young, she read in the dark for most of the night because there was no other times that she was allowed to read. I asked her how she saw the page in the dark and she said she could find little bits of light anywhere, by the window, through the crack of another door – she would stand by that door to angle the light on her page. She just wouldn’t give up until she had finished the book. I have no books on the history of Adelaide, but she said never mind, she would not give up, then she said goodbye and went back to her bus.
Sarah has seen the Jura Mountains. She said they are north of the Alps and very beautiful. I have never seen them and she said that I ought to. She herself plans to travel again, this time by ship because this will give her time to read on the way. I approved of this – I always plan the slowest way possible to anywhere so as to bank up some reading hours for withdrawal later.
Sarah has not had an easy life. But having had no other, she carries it around tenderly for what it’s worth – which is a great deal.
She was raised amongst books, many, many of them, mostly the English classics because England is where her mother was born. She will recite them off: Wind in the Willows, Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Louis Untermeyer, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Moomins, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, Little Women, The Borrowers, The Water Babies, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens….
Sarah is an only child.
When she was 15, her mother took her to France and they stayed at Saint -Claude. They saw a film there – Casablanca – in subtitles. She loved it. Her father didn’t come, he was an accountant in Adelaide at John Martins and he stayed home to look after Sarah’s dog Bruno. Also, he didn’t like travelling.
Now she is reading Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright – the one about the suffragettes which she told me is an important part of our history. Sarah is always reading. She told me that it has helped her through the more difficult times of her life. Which has been most of it.
Reading was one of the last things her mother gave up before she died.
When Sarah was 15, and her mother took her to France and they saw the Jura Mountains, they stayed with cousins at a vineyard. And her cousin gave her two beautiful French dolls for her birthday and she tasted French wine and it was summer and it was really very, very beautiful.
sonder – n. the realization that each random passer by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig