When the home library loses its mind

When I was young and had time to loll about, my brothers used to pull a random paperback from my shelves and ask me to identify it using only the gap it left. I always got them right. I knew where each book knelt as though in its own benediction each night. The Last Unicorn. The Incredible Journey. I Heard the Owl Call my Name, Josie goes Home. Every single volume of The Bobbsey Twins. When they weren’t there, I knew.

 ‘Give it back. I never said you could.’

I kept my library tight and worried about it at school. I imaged wrongly that it was of value to everyone and that everyone was dazzled by its kaleidoscope of broken skies and the urge to not travel anywhere but through it.

I was mistaken. Everyone has their own dazzle. What was actually dazzling was only my infatuation with it. But I continued collecting. Later, when I had my own bookshop, I would meet fellow dazzlers. They range from the age of five to ninety five, and I would know them by the way they turn on an axis and can’t decide.

Now our home has been rinsed through with family; a thousand summers. L plates. Exams. Crying, and broken microwave plates. Near misses. Calamity, and needing to reorganize the towels. Grandsons that read and climb and fall out of the mulberry tree and come for a bandaid. The library standing back and looking on with approval.

The collections continue, swollen and mixed, with broadened shoulders and matchbox cars around their ankles. Books have moved. The children’s flats have burst upward like pancakes and newcomers stand around waiting for a place. Joan Didion, Alexis Wright, Lahiri Jhumper, A Gentleman in Moscow, everything by Marie Darrieussecq, Kim Scott, Gerald Murnane. Books have gone; don’t know where.

The library has been forced back into order, but it didn’t last. I pushed all the shelves to new places to make new spaces, so now D is next to T, and Asterix looks at Beatrix Potter, and I can’t find anything, but so far that’s ok. I know where Bill Bryson probably is, and I know where the Text Classics are because I just read The Women in Black and put it back. There are plastic monkeys clustered underneath Little House on the Prairie where they are having kindy, and Owl Babies is always out on the floor.

A library whirls around its readers; it is never still and never the same, and its life can never end.

Image by Vladimir Fedotko

Regarding our own stuff

They are becoming too many, and I know I won’t be able to read them all. Think about that. Why did I get all these? But this is only some of them. Why are book collectors so mad? What it is? Where’s the grip?

My library. It lines every wall. It’s on fire. It swells and shrinks, puckers and protrudes; puts ankles in the hallway, spills books onto the beds of grandsons, ‘What’s this Nanny, it’s got bees on it, it’s got rips in her, it’s too heavy, it’s not my book, it’s bent, but I didn’t done it.’

My library stands with its spine against all walls, shoulders back and watching the family drama. It breathes out. Books land softly. They are trodden on; they brace their cardboard ribs and make it through.

‘Who’s Arthur Ransome?’

‘The Lakes. Heap of kids in a boat. Fabulous.’

‘Is this racist?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Whose this?’

‘Jamaica Kincaid.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Nanny, I saw Paddington.’

‘What’s this Mrs Pepperpot?’

‘It’s mine.’

‘It’s not.’

‘Should I read Margaret Atwood?’

‘Yes.’

My sister bending strongly and in no mood for argument, examines my shelf of Terry Pratchetts. She finds something that might be hers. She straightens up with an accusing face. It is hers.

My dad returns my copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Tea Tree Gully Library.

The grandsons have a go at Asterix.

‘Mum, read Nevo Zisin. Because you don’t get it.’

I read and read. Everything implodes, and my library rocks back and forth holding things upright for me, knowing

I still have my mother’s collection of Monica Dickens. I won’t let it go. It’ll come with me. Which of course it will. Once, a customer, Robert, said ‘all the books come with us, my God, they do.’ Imagine not reading. But I can’t.

The thing about a massive library is that

People think you don’t know what’s in it. You do.

People think you have read it all. You haven’t.

People think you are trying to read it all. You aren’t.

People think it’s up for borrows. It isn’t.

People think it’s in alphabetical order. As if.

Those of us who collect are indulging in something without end, although we don’t start out that way. We soon learn (that Terry Pratchett is right, and ) to accept that our libraries will eventually control us, and that our collections live way beyond any trivial hope for order we may nurse.

Libraries sprout in any direction they want, and this is because our capacity to be nourished by literature is vigorous and unpredictable. You can be hauled anywhere. It is ok to go from a biography of Leonardo De Vinci to a history of Myanmar and from there to Moominvalley and then back to clocks.  

Margaret Atwood said, A reader can never tell if it’s a real thimble or an imaginary thimble, because by the time you’re reading it, they’re the same. It’s a thimble. It’s in the book.

Oh no….

When D. H. Lawrence fell

I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.

It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.

But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.

I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.

Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.  

What readers do with books in a bookshop

It’s a good sign when people come into the shop with eyes that zing straight to the shelves. Cannot focus on much else, and they scan the Covid app backwards, without looking at it. Kneel down immediately, in everyone’s way, to look at a  small dark red volume of Cranford. Holding it gently as if it were alive, which it is.

Children stand and look down, one finger resting on the book they look at. They read the title out loud, many times as though testing it. Which they are. They stand on one leg and wrap the other leg around the standing leg as though this gives extra information somehow. Which it does.

Young men in backpacks kneel and bend easily, squat and yoga their way around the shelves, tapping paperbacks on their chins while thinking. Young women tip their heads to the side and ponder, tap the paperback on one wrist as though assessing its reliability. They say to each other, ‘Look at THIS.’

Old ladies frown and bang books on the table, expecting the same sort of strength that they are now made of. Old men shuffle and jingle coins in pockets and hesitate to ask me about Clive Cussler in case they are a nuisance. They aren’t. Young people sit cross legged and gaze at rows of books in awe, in love, in a mood to plan a library, in a passion to read the great people. They pull out volumes of poetry and plays and hold them open on laps, frowning, wondering, but who is T.S Eliot…they read lines out loud in whispers, pegging themselves to greatness without realizing it.

Some readers fan through a book with their thumbs, looking for…what…? Other readers turn a book over and over, test its weight, gaze into its face, rub its spine, read the back, the front, a page about halfway through, add it to their pile where it lays flat, smiling.

Others cradle books in their arms, stack them down by ankles, hold them in armpits, balance them, wipe them for dust, turn them around and around, squint at the contents, sprint to the counter to pay. They photograph the books, argue about them, check them against lists, smile delighted, look disgusted, bring them to the counter and argue about their merit. Tell me to find them, buy them, post them, get them, for God’s sake read them, read them, read them!

So I do. I try.

Photography by Rubee Hood

Collecting collections

Collecting books for collections is intensely enjoyable. Many people do it, especially young readers. It doesn’t matter what the book is, if it fits a collection, then it is worth having. I now do it myself. If a book has been published by The Nonesuch Press, I want it. I don’t know why and seldom bother to worry about it. Books in collections are slices of something good; fruity, restorative, rich. When a reader says, ‘I’m adding this to my collection’, I know what they are referring to. They are keeping it for later. Later is a realm of time ahead of us that has seats, shelves, warmth, and wooden tables of quiet food.

 A set of books is something you can enter (like a realm), and inside it is a complex place that is never still and never complete.

Images from PenguinBookADay

The little girl who is planning a magical library with hidden bookcases

It was busy today. I don’t know why, just a usual Friday with ducks on the road. I had to dust all the shelves. There was a tiny nest in a hollow in the dust where I usually park. In it were two small hopeful blue eggs. I parked carefully so not to disturb. Over the road people are slewed about on the lawns with cans of coke and paper bags.

A mother came in with her two children. An older boy in sunglasses and earphones. A younger girl in a blue sweater. They bought a stack, and one choice was a leather bound volume, The Complete Shakespeare in black, gold, and toffee. Heavy. Gold edges. I said, ‘Who gets this one?’, and the child answered, ‘Me’, as if I should have known.

I was impressed. She volunteered nothing more. But on the way out she turned back to me and said she was making a library in her bedroom. It would have hidden shelves. One shelf would open because it was actually a door, and inside, another room, and in that room another shelf would open because is was actually a magic door, and in that room another magic door, and in that room another one….

I sat back stricken with envy.

Image by Elina Ellis

What do readers do with their books?

I always wonder this. Where do the books go? What sort of libraries does everyone else have? There must be some enormous collections out there. I know that, if allowed to, libraries take on a life of their own that is way beyond anything we can direct. People mention this.

Some visitors carry out armfuls. Some just one. But it’s the same thing; the intensity of the capture is identical whether one or some. It’s impossible to tell another person why or even exactly what one has found. Last Tuesday, John carried seven large volumes of history, in two Woolworths shopping bags. He was bent over with the weight when he went out the door.

I said, ‘But where’s your car?’ And he said, ‘No, no, I’m all right,’ while looking down at the bags he was carrying with eyes like jewels.  

Do children make libraries? They are particular about their books, staring at covers for a long time. Once a child stood over a table, examining an illustration, tapping it as he stared, not hearing me, or the traffic, not even the thunder storm outside that pushed all of Strathalbyn under cover. When he bought it, he walked outside into the rain without noticing that either.

Some young readers have by memory every title on their shelves. They describe the size of their collection by how good the books are that are in it. Thus a collection of six books can challenge a national state library in terms of significance.

Illustration by Erin McGuire