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

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

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

In here

There are people here. They are standing the way people do in bookshops. Feet crooked, muscles tense, the mind not yet absorbed, eyes slinging from side to side. Bones angular and jutting out at the shelves.

Then they disappear into something. Heads drop onto chins. Hands drop to the waist where they hook into jeans or sit on the shelf of the hips. Coats, that were gripped tensely, drop to chairs, or even to the floor. Glasses slide down. Readers hold one book and read another. Necks crank into awful angles to get at titles. Pulses fade. Breathing slows.

Hands, as they are forgotten, curl into crabby shapes, personal and useful. Readers don’t know they have default reading bodies that fold into sculptures of absorption and intention.

Amongst the books at home

Hard to choose one. Nobody home but me. Everyone usually sits amongst them. They are the walls. My dad had a study similar, and I used to play in there, building things out of books and pretending to read, which was as good as actually reading because I still made things, changed reality, added to it, made it from one colour to ninety shades of six colours, easily. Then had to go and feed the hens or something.

My children shot up, grew and left, weaving in and out of bookshelves, resisting the harping but absorbing the actual books.

Now I’m home alone and looking at the books. Hard to chose one. Thomas the Tank is on the floor again, split into a thousand small annoying paperbacks that take too long to read out loud and carry plots I can’t understand.

Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car, still kind, still has a river in it. My grandsons like the bit with the fighting.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a gun on page 12.

My Terry Pratchett paperbacks are in an Ikea cabinet with a glass door, implying value, but they are pressed to the glass, squashed and irreverent, falling out, not in order, contemptuous.

Nothing is in order. It was once, but I moved the shelves and T ended up next to B, and S landed next to the Margaret Atwoods, who quelled the unease by turning sideways. I can’t find anything. Therefore, I am reduced to what wants me. Not a lot, but tonight, I notice things. Books have fallen out, or are used to ramp matchbox cars, or for a yoga head boost. There is a history of Sand: Journey through Science and the Imagination. Maybe. The Making of Australia by David Hill, but will there be any women in it, probably not, and then Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc, where the hell did you come from? But it’s red and gold, 1123 pages, the pages creamy and silky, supple, and solid with weight, so that’s the one. It starts out, ‘Visitors who want a glimpse of Viet Nam’s traditional culture will find no better opportunity than a cruise along the Red River. A few well-chosen stopovers in this river delta dotted with sleepy thousand year old villages will provide the most curious tourist with a……and on it goes taking me to yet another place, aching with travel.

Hard to choose one. Still manage it.

The summer reading list

Your summer reading list should contain a dozen of the best books about the holiday season, relaxation, the summer, warmth, sunlight, wine, evening and song.

Actually this is rubbish. Your summer reading list is whatever you want to read. However, it should not be measured in numbers (of books). This is for the amateur. Real lists are measured in years. It should never be an achievable list (also for the amateurs). It should have a life of its own, way beyond your control and way ahead of you in knowing what you need.

A reading list is a priceless document. It should remain intact, unconquered, and be passed on to your children.

How people browse for books

Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.

Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.

Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’

A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.

A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’

He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.

She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.

Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.

Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’

Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.

Two conversations, one inside and one outside, both at once

1) A group of six passed the windows of the shop. They were jumbled and jostling and loud. It seemed as though they have all climbed off the same bus. The tone of their conversation is concern. Their speech is stretched and knocked about. This is because it was windy. So, they repeated themselves and called and argued, trying to knead logic back into the excursion.

‘If you turn right you’ll get to Adelaide.’

‘Right?’

‘No, left. If you go right you’ll get to Harry’s.’

‘That’s where I want to go.’

‘Jesus, make up your mind, mate.’

‘What’s that? What are you saying?’

I watch them blow past, silently thanking them for life. For, of course, this is where life is.

2) There are two ladies. They are great readers, and they are friends. Or maybe they are great friends, and they are readers. They talk in doorways. I only have two doorways, so there they are, digging into the afternoon; quite close to the counter, and therefore close to me.

‘I can cope with the dead bodies, but those little Scandinavian noir things, well…yeah those.’

‘Find a dead body, you know, all that sort of stuff?’

‘That’s it!’

‘I get sick of it. I quite like McCall Smith though. When I read, everything folds around me. Don’t know where I am.’

‘Have you read The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it’s a war story?’

‘What are we talking about? Which one?’

‘Wait, do you think Google are listening to us?’

‘No doubt.’

They buy a modest stack of outstanding reads. They look at me kindly, ‘we’ll be back, don’t you worry.’

I watch them go, silently thanking them for life, for this of course, is where life is.