Please come and look at these books…

Still Life with Quinces by Van Gogh (2)

I did go and look at those books. It was a library of a woman who had died.

The lady spoke of her mother. We were standing outside the garage, shielding our eyes from the afternoon sun. There were fruit trees and two dogs, cardboard boxes, and a horse behind a railing – it was warm and quiet. I could hear the horse breathing. She was telling me about her mother; all the things she used to do, the gratitude of communities, the reading, her passion, her; the mother.

I could smell quinces.

‘The things a person loves are always, always recorded in their library.’ The daughter leaned back in amazement and pride as she said this. It was a delicate opera of grief, sung outside (to me) next to a bucket of yellow quinces. The daughter was wearing pink and white. She said, ‘Don’t lift those heavy boxes, you’ll hurt yourself.’  Her mother, Barbara, was one of my first customers. She read Don Camillo. And there they were, the books she once bought from me, right there in a box, in the sunshine, next to the quinces.

 

Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh

I remember

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Before I had a bookshop, the idea of having one lit up the back fence like some kind of unwanted answer from the past.

I remember looking at empty shops. When I found one, I thought, well! I never expected any kind of commercial success, but I did hope to survive. What the shop was to look like was paramount. It had to look like Diagon Alley –  because this was what I liked. Thus, the shop was based on what I wanted, what I liked, what I thought was good. A good selfish start.

(I had a lot to learn.)

Once a child said, “This is like Diagon Alley’, and sealed the happiest day of my first year.

I was surrounded by thousands of oblongs, each one containing an unexpected rich fuse. I felt so wealthy that I had to lie down and cradle my head.

It was not possible to explain such an abandonment of logic.  I remember experiencing it early in life; after reading Tubby and the Lantern. This was because Tubby and Ah Mee had a bunk bed.

In Little House on the Prairie, there was snow.

In Sam and the Firefly, there were lights, gold gems stinging an emerald blue sky.

In Whispering in the Wind, Crooked Mick could sit on a horse and drink two cups of tea while it bucked.

Later, Helen Garner, John Steinbeck, Dal Sijie…. uncovering the diabolical ache of life without solutions. So much. So little time.

Then, repeated visits to Jeff’s Books to learn how to do it:

What happens if…..

What do I do when…

Who is…

What is…

How do I…

What should I….

How can I…

Finally, back to my shop to actually do it. I had to learn how people read, and why. This was different, and it was difficult, and it still is. So much to learn, so little time. Luckily,  I recorded it all.

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Being weird about having access to a university library

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It’s excellent having access to a university library. This is because they have the most audacious range of books. The collections cater for the usual academic needs, but there’s other books there too. I’ve often found one that’s been gifted (within another collection) from somewhere, decades ago. Obscure, beloved, inscribed. Our council libraries are good; they are very considerate and always appropriate. Academic libraries are kind of abnormal. The range and diversity of books is ridiculous. Volume ones sit consistently without volume twos. Books that are unpopular, strange, obscure, unknown, loved just once, will definitely be there. Dressed in paper, boards, leather; ancient, modern, paper clipped, stapled, dropping old library tickets, and containing yellowed bookplates that say, “from the collection of Professor Frederick May”. I don’t go with a list. I want to find things that I would otherwise miss. This way, I found Shotaro Yasuoka, Blaise Cendrars and Edwidge Danticat. And once (long ago) Helen Garner. Sometimes I even look for what I’m supposed to be reading (for the study that has allowed me to use the library in the first place). But mostly not. I just prefer looking. Many of the books are unfashionable, too heavy, without dust covers, and shelved with library stickers across their eyes. Doesn’t matter. It’s weird in these places, in an untapped, endless and brilliant kind of way.

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The antilibrary

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I have realized I still have 3500 years of reading in my library.

The Lebanese writer, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, calls this unread collection of books an antilibrary.

He writes that a library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

He predicts that I will accumulate more knowledge and more books. And that the number of (unread) books on my shelves will continue to grow as I realize the enormity of what I still don’t know.

“Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a sceptical empiricist.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

Brilliant. Going out to buy more books.

In the library

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In the Library

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Charlies Simic, 2008
Sculpture by Susana Coderch

The Bookshelves

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Many customers describe their bookshelves as unfinished. Everyone tells the story with pride. One lady told me that all her shelves were double stacked. She said this with glee and gluttony, looking at me carefully, looking for disapproval. I said that mine were triple stacked and she screamed with happiness. Her husband looked at her and said it was time to go.
Michael said that he had books in Spanish, the most beautiful language.
One man said all his low shelves were broken. He has just wedged them up with beer bottles and old westerns, does the job.
Everyone says they should not get any more books but they do anyway.
All children examine a book from the outside in.
Young people who are friends and who come in pairs or triples stand in tight groups and say oh my god over every book that is good. They will do this for ages.
Old people who say that young people don’t read anymore are wrong.
Louis always says to me: what’s good at the moment? This means any book about Mahatma Gandhi or 20th century art. He has been given a new bookshelf and wants to fill it even though he already has more books than he can read in his lifetime.
One lady said that her husband threw all her books out when he left so now she is out to get another library together again. She said she is pretty happy right now.
One lady bought her son a stack of books for Christmas but then she kept them all for herself.
Young men say: sweet or brilliant or that’s really keen. One young man said that Freud is a radical and a sweet gone read. One boy said that the only one is Tolkien.
One lady said that she would not read Mark Twain.
One man needed a copy of the same book for his three adult children because otherwise they would fight. He said they were all in their forties.
Peggy is really sick and is going to read all her Game of Thrones as quickly as possible and this made me feel really sad.

The New Shelf

shelfI have a new shelf. It is new and handmade and for my birthday. It sits upright and tense, new, in the bedroom, rubee red, beautiful, anxious and ready to house the treasure for which it was made. I am lucky to have a husband who can make magic and that properly, so it lasts forever.
So, who was chosen? Books, this time, were selected and taken to their seats based on how they were dressed at the time of their publication. So, if lined up at the back door of paperback hell, well, no. If they still wear the soft leather of yesterday, then, yes.
If modern with a movie cover, then no fucking way,
If Easton Press, that superior leather bitch club then yes.
If with broken spines, dented knees, lost dentures, dandruff or a history of drunkenness, then no. (But they ( Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker) certainly wouldn’t want to be there.)
If beautiful in all weathers, then yes.
If a gift from afar, from friendship, from love, then yes. ( Letters of Henry Handel Richardson, complete).
Self-help books, those pretentious sons of. No.
From gifted, lifted libraries not my own but given to me, then the yes, voted immediately. The gold text classics, Australian literature, sit up the top tier and give sun. Yes.
A mighty thousand-page volume of literature by women. Obviously.
If clothed in the colours of the Arabian Nights, sapphire, emerald, gold, the dazzle razzle music of insanity and violet, and the sky between twilight and forbidden. Yes.
Dante. Ok.
Things I have not read, have read, might read, plan to read.
Night reads, mostly.

You can still see everything…

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Well, he came back to the shop, the man who had to allow his library to go under the hammer at the auction all those years ago.

He came back because he is going to build another library and he chose without hesitation copies of The Mill on the Floss, Tom Jones and Vanity Fair. And when I examined each one slowly to make sure that I could actually allow them to go ( as he had heartlessly chosen the most attractive copies in the shop ) he told me a story about each of these books – he had read them all, several times over! This customer was wearing a knitted jumper with leather patches on the elbows and he leaned on the counter, on his elbows to tell the stories, especially urging me to read Tom Jones which was exceedingly funny. When he told the stories of the story of Vanity Fair  he stood up and held onto his glasses with both hands, trying with difficulty to keep himself anchored on the mere ground which is far too ordinary a place to stand when you are trying to talk about Vanity Fair and Becky Sharp.

He said he now can only read with one eye.

He told me about Middlemarch, Far From the Madding Crowd and Madam Bovary.

He said that reading with one eye or three eyes, makes no difference when you are reading books as good as these. That you can still see everything.

 

Sculpture by Emily Blincoe

 

 

The Auction

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There have only been four visitors today, outside is cold and windy and raining and everybody is just running past the windows looking for their car keys.

But one man stayed for ages, looking for a copy of A Room with a View which is his wife’s favourite book. He told me that when he and his wife moved to their houseboat they had to sell all their books and there were thousands of them. (But now, come summer, they were moving and were going to make a library again, a haphazard summer library of everything!)

He said he remembered the day they sold everything, a cold and grey nothing sort of day and everything went up for auction and he was happy to see it all go (thank riddance, he had thought) but when the books went under the hammer he tried to just sit there but he couldn’t and so he went and sat in his car and looked through the windscreen and made himself not think about it but it wasn’t possible.

 

 

 

Noah and Max in the Library

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Max and Noah, who can now pace steadily and productively across all floors, are together before dinner in the library corner and they have found two small horses with riders and lances.

One horse is on the windowsill and the other is caught between a stack of Robert Louis Stevenson and an armchair and this one has been captured. Noah and Max communicate through simple sounds of enthusiasm and query. They share the most significant messages through silence, using unblinking eye contact – a horn sounding out a wordless acknowledgment of awe. Once they have read each other’s faces, they turn to the next page, in this case, the horse itself.

Max can see that the lance and the hand of the knight go together. He puts the end of the lance in his mouth and tastes the problem. Noah holds both hands poised in front of him and feels the problem. They both stare at the radiance of the knight and the lance and the horse.

Noah does a small dance with his feet and they both stare down at Noah’s feet.

The horse falls to the floor. The knight falls behind the books. Only the lance remains. Noah moves his hand toward the lance. Max moves the lance away in alarm and they gaze at each other for a long moment. Once lance, two infants.

They both stare again into the problem of the lance, which has now, in their budding world, become two problems.

But now, suddenly, they are being called to eat, and the lance is abruptly cast aside. The babies launch into a vigorous rocking trot toward the dining table where they arrive within seconds and they breathe loudly to show the vast distance they have just traveled.