Why read?

I’ve set this out before. Here it is again. Reading is complex. Think Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. Reading’s not watching, and it’s not travel. It’s not something to do. It’s something you become, like fatigued, alert, or in love. This is because a book, once ingested, becomes part of your soft-lining.

Read: because it’s effective. Once read, a text will continue to inform you. It will exist in the muscles around your eye sockets. You cannot remove this new insight. Think That Deadman’s Dance by Kim Scott.

Best to burn books, or ban them, or just not read them, if you want to stay vanilla.

Read: because it’s powerful. Once read, you’re changed. You may not think so. But who can hear their own voice change? You’ll be the last person aware of it.  Think The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov.

Read: because it’s enraging. Once a text enters you, you’ll be challenged on a terrible level.  This is the level of your own self-you. Think of those books that suggest it’s time to leave the awful struggle on the road. Let it flap back to it’s own necessary family.  Think What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky.

Read: because it’s expansive. Inside, you blow larger, and you won’t be able to restore your old favourite self damning dimensions. Think I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.

Read: because it’s confronting. We’re all recovering from something. Reading prevents our self-denial from becoming too comfortable by allowing comfort. Think Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Read so you’ll be forced to contemplate an example of precise and dazzling beauty. Think These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy.

Read because it’s comforting. Open your courage flaps and allow in a couple of astonishingly simple but completely new and healing ideas. Think My Goblin Therapist by Morgan Taubert.

Read, because the great texts are written by good solid failing people, and not generated by AI content tools that are sleek with success and without human allergies or proper death. Think A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Read because we basically don’t know anything. Think The Ugly Tourist by Jamaica Kinkaid.

Read because we basically think we know everything. Think Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Read: because the great texts take risks, and they insert tight unnoticed gems of permission into our poor flat salads. Think Mist by Louise M Hewett

Read: because once you’ve experienced the greatest writing, you too will quietly flake that same humility and insight onto your own breakfast table. Think The Vivisector by Patrick White.

You can’t forget. Think Ping by Marjorie Flack.

You’ll be enraged. Think Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.

You’ll be desolate. Think A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Think Collete. Think Margaret Atwood. Think Brain Moore and Amitav Ghosh. Helen Garner.

Elizabeth Bishop.

What is power? Tolkien, tell me. Suffering. Baldwin. Anger: Terry Pratchett. Vision: Huxley.

The Odyssey. You think it’s not relevant? Fools. The Very Hungry Caterpillar: we are you.

James Joyce. Sigh.

Of course, a Good Bookshop will put all these books right in front of you so you too can share in the glory. But not in my bookshop because I already took all these books home, and I’m keeping them.

LOL.

On being without internet

It was strange being at the shop without internet because there didn’t seem to be much to do. And there was very little going on. But this turned out to be wrong.

There were customers all day. Everyone chatted companionably about the outage. Everyone had a theory.

An old lady said she didn’t care that the tower was down because she could still work in the garden, and she bought an Elizabeth George, saying, ‘I’ll pay for this with good old cash!’

Robert, who has never been connected to any internet, didn’t comment on it because he didn’t know about it. He said he’s planning to read every Carlos Castaneda book so he could work through the ongoing problem: are they fact or fiction?

I managed to reorganize my entire counter and clean some windows. Once, outside the shop, a group of young men realized they couldn’t use their phones, holding them up in the air toward the sun. One man said, ‘What are you gunna do?’ and his friend said, ‘Fuck knows.’

A man told me he was with Optus and so his phone was fine: he had internet! And his data had already been stolen, so nothing further to worry about.

Alan noticed that a couple he sees every day each go to different bakeries and reckons it’s because one bakery has better lamingtons than the other. ‘But couples should go to the same place, otherwise you cause problems. That’s how I see it anyway.’ Then he went home: meat to cook and a sleep to find.

I read two chapters of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense. Brilliant and will continue. I showed the book to George who said he’d been looking for it, but I refused to sell it. He bought a book about elephants for his grandson instead.

Someone told me the Facebook chat page about the local Telstra outage is entertaining and informative. ‘If you have Optus. Lol.’

A teenage reader showed me that her phone was working. An older reader who examined the signal on this girl’s phone (while waiting behind her to purchase a copy of Quietly Flows the Don), advised me that technology always works for young people.

Sarah said that the flooding is getting worse. I told her I couldn’t look up the news without the internet and she said that flooding doesn’t need an internet. She also said the British PM is in a bad way.

A lady told me about Roald Dahl: from her head, not from her phone. I thought maybe I could do a bit more of that.

And so life want wonderingly on.

The little boy who took a long time waving goodbye

I didn’t see him when he came in: must have come in a slim shadow next to the walking thighs of parents and holding tightly to an adult hand. I know they were in the front room: I could hear the murmuring and the calling out that families do.

‘Where are you, Jack?’

‘Where did Jack go?’

‘Here.’

Later, they all came to the counter with a handful of children’s books and a DK Star Wars Reader, book 4, level 5. They paid. They all turned in a soft cotton group for the door.

That was when the child looked back at me and waved. I said, ‘Goodbye. Enjoy your books.’

And he continued to wave in that way children do, the hand going rapidly from side to side at face level, both eyes intensely on me, not looking where they’re going, bumping against mum, banging against the door, still looking back and making the same hand movement and the eyes on me, eyes like polished citrine expanding into dark gold.

‘Come on Jack, watch the door.’ A final soft little bump, the little fluttering hand, and then they were gone.

Sculpture by Clay Enoch

On this day

A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.

I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.

People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.

It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.

Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.

Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.

A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.

A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.

Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’

Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.

I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).

A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.

I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.

How we say goodbye

People gather in the shop to talk, and then they leave again. They need to say goodbye to each other.

People gather on the footpath outside and talk about things. Then they need to leave each other again.

People talk on the phone: inside the shop and outside the door; they talk on their mobile phones and need, each time, to end the conversation.

People buy books and talk to me. Then they need to leave and say goodbye to me. It’s such a simple thing. But it isn’t simple – it’s complex, and the ways to bid another person farewell are endless. The ritual of saying goodbye is sculpted with tools as fine as needles in order to fit the situation.

A man outside the shop is pacing with – not an infant – but a phone. The phone is more demanding than any infant – and far less rewarding. The phone is hard and disinterested and alive only through one plastic airway. The man was tense, needing to share information with a listener who was not interested.

‘I’m actually the son of the deceased and – ‘

‘Yes, but that wasn’t done.’

‘It wasn’t done.’

‘Just leave it.’

‘Right.’

‘Bye.’ The word ‘bye’ bruising the end of the conversation.

A child leaving behind her mother and three books under one arm. She turns to wave at me and to wave the way children do: the open hand going back and forth rapidly, level with the flower petal face, byyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeee: a ribbon of sound that ends on a note of hope and the child still looking back at me to see if I heard. I did.

Robert who gets to the door and remembers something and comes back and then leaves again, bobbing forward and backward, clutching the door, thinking about Carlos Castaneda, ‘Yes, ok, bye. Yes bye. Ok. Bye. Ha-ha, bye.’

A tradesman on a mobile at the kerb, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Ok mate. Yeahr. See ya. Fuckin idiot.’

Two ladies:

‘Bye Hilary.’

‘Bye my dearest. See you soon.’ And cardigans and pearls meet in a heartfelt.

Young women talking, intense, buttoning up coats and paying for books, ‘Thank you so much, bye‘, and there’s an emphasis on the ‘ye’, a tiny precise uplift in tone and volume to indicate energy because the day is not yet done.

School children in noisy clots on their way to Woolworths, ‘See ya idiot man.’

‘Stuff you Adam.’

And me, telling my mother, ‘Ok, see you later. I’ll see you tonight, mum.’

‘There’s no need to check on me.’

‘I’m not, mum. It’s fine. I’m coming to visit.’

‘Well, don’t if you’re busy.’

‘I’ll see you tonight.’ This phrase, this time, a code for everything said but not said.

Sculpture by Elizabeth Ostrander

The Queen died

We got the news Wednesday, and everyone wanted to talk about it. Or at least mention it. And it was cold and raining again. Christine stopped her gopher at the door and yelled ‘Did you hear?’, and I said I had. She mimicked herself crying and then zoomed on toward the bakery.

Alan had a dilemma with the bakeries: he wanted a pasty and a piece of pavlova and didn’t know which bakery to go to.

‘I don’t want any bakery to see me go into the other bakery.’

‘The Queen has died.’ I said, a bit unnecessarily.

‘Oh God, Sarah will be in a shit now.’

‘She’s bearing up well.’

‘No she won’t. Well I’m going for my pastie. Need a feed.’

But Sarah did bear up well. The Queen had died on her birthday, but she’d already stopped by to tell me that, and to pick up a Sir Alec Guinness biography. She added that the Queen dying on her birthday was an omen of some kind. Robert was here too, disappointed because his order, The Lost Book of Enki, still hadn’t arrived.

He and Sarah stood back to discuss things.

A customer asked me for Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. I didn’t have it. Sarah told Robert that she didn’t hold with that women, Camilla.

Robert said that his family, the Grimshaws, extend directly back to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and that one day there would be a reckoning for his execution, which never should have happened.

Sarah looked enthralled.

A couple bought a stack of Ben Elton books.

Liz came in for A Fortunate Life and said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Queen.’

Sarah said that she didn’t think that Charles was in good health.

Robert said he threw the oracle last night and the cards said that Charles would soon succumb to gout, which got all of them in the end.

Anne came in for her cookbook and for tickets to St Andrews on Sunday. A lady came in and bought The Handmaid’s Tale for her sister in hospital. They said that it was sad about the Queen.

Then Robert had to go and reckon with the bank, who were deliberately trying to erase him from their system.

Sarah went to Woolworths.

Still raining.

Painting by Karin Jurick

‘I don’t know if anyone ever goes into this shop. I shouldn’t think so.’

This wiry, rusting observation was made right at my shop door. And loudly. The speaker was an old lady, bent over a walking stick. So that’s ok. I respect age at all times, especially as I’m gaining so rapidly in it myself.

She was talking to her husband probably. He looked startled and looked through the window with rapidly moving eyes. He made a peaceable remark, and soothed, they continued on with the hundred mile journey to their car, which I could see from my counter.

It was cold. There were drops of rain on the spinning balloons outside my shop. One person over at the bus stop, huddled against the cold pole of transport that isn’t there yet.

Inside, a man sitting in the waiting chair, lurched up at his companion and said, ‘What’d you get this time?’ and his companion, who had a biography of Christopher Wren in one hand and his phone in the other, said, ‘Got a biography of Christopher Wren. And this here is worth a read.’

 He was pointing to a biography of Winston Churchill on another shelf. ‘This one is a goer. I’ve read it.’

Outside, the car with the elderly couple slowly, slowly pulled out gently into the traffic, still participating well despite everything.

I looked at the Winston Churchill. ‘Should I read it?’

‘Do.’

I made a half hearted promise. But I had The Root and the Flower including The Near and the Far with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald next to me. And it’s next. Sorry Winston.

The men left on a note of blue happiness.

The Root and the Flower is by L. H. Meyers. I’d read about it somewhere else, never heard of it or him. Published in 1935 and apparently a minor classic and astonishingly imagined. That was enough; I decided to crack it and see what’s inside. It’s about India.

A child came in and gave me two books for the shop. A Beatrix Potter and a Little Golden Book. Both hers. It was raining outside.

‘For you.’

‘Really?’

The child doubled in intensity. ‘Yes.’

I stared at the books, emblems of fortune and compassion.

‘Really?’ Outside, the rain dropped and swam in its own disbelief.

‘Can I keep them?’

‘No, you sell them. Here.’

‘Of course.’

The child’s mother arrived, damp and busy, ‘Come on. You done?’

I looked at the child. ‘Thank you.’

But she’d gone, out the door and into further worlds and busy with them.

After that I drooped softly at the counter; people do come in!

Illustration by Di Fournier

How strong is his strength?

My grandson asked me this question at the shop. He had my Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader down from the shelf. He knew they had some form of power but isn’t familiar with them yet.

He asked me, ‘Can we measure it?’

‘Oh well. How do you measure strength?’ I asked philosophically.

‘With this ruler.’ He’d found a cardboard ruler inside a book.

So we measured the height of Darth Vader. He was 24cm.

‘He has 24 of strength.’

I agreed.

Luke Skywalker had lost his cloak and tools, so we didn’t measure him. I’d bought them second hand and incomplete. My grandson stared at Luke Skywalker without saying anything.

Then outside the shop, two people passed the window talking together: a father and son talking together, hurrying because it was cold, and both wearing rugged blue jumpers, scarves, and hats:

‘Yeah. Yes. That’s what your mother always said. You should go with that.’

They disappeared toward the bakery.

Noah and I stood Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader side by side. My grandson looked at Darth Vader, ‘Is that the dad?’

I said it was.

‘Why is he the dad? Why is he lost his stuff?’

Suddenly the the same pair passed the window again, this time holding paper bags from the bakery against their chests and still talking:

‘And there was a school teacher fellow here, used to always carry that bag of eggs around with him, remember?’

‘Did he break his boots?’ Noah asked.

I looked at Darth Vader again.

Outside the door a lady said to her husband, ‘You start and stop and start and stop. Now get out of my way.’ He said, ‘Keep your hair on.’

Noah asked, ‘Where’s his power pack?’ I looked back Darth Vader.

‘I think that got lost.’

‘Can we find it?’

A customer came in. She looked at us approvingly. ‘I see you’re busy in here.’

A young man came in for science fiction and looked at Luke Skywalker, who was now propped against Poetry and Plays.

‘Woah, mate. Cool. These for sale?’

I said they weren’t.

Noah, kneeling on the floor, said, ‘He’s lost his powers and coat.’

The customers left. Noah left. I put Darth and Luke up crookedly because I can’t reach. Later, I found the ruler under the chair.

Across the road and on the bus

Every morning there’s a small waiting crowd over there, the people still and thoughtful. I see them when I’m putting my signs out. Eventually the bus pulls up, everyone hearing it first and making small movements of preparation before it arrives.

The passengers inside the bus look out at the cold queue, look at them without really seeing them, passengers thinking through all the things in their lives, thoughts that are now blended with the inside of the bus and the angled light and the feel of the engine through their feet.

There’s only a small queue this morning, but two people are farewelling a third man and shouting directions to him as they move toward the bus.

‘Go straight down.’

The listener was also walking backwards, his arm raised and thumb up, the thumb jerking up every time he shouted back.

‘Yep.’

‘Turn at the roundabout.’

‘Yep.’

‘Keep going down, you’ll see it.’

‘Yep.’

‘Ok?’

‘Yeah mate. See you’, and turned to jog toward a motorbike.

The bus driver, masked, was turning to each passenger then back to the front, then to the next, nodding his head, nodding his head. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer next to him and a jacket folded over the back of the seat.

The queue shuffled forward. A young man was trying to fold a pram on the footpath. A young woman at the front of the bus kept looking back at him. She had a toddler on her hip; the bus driver was looking at the young man through the windscreen. The motorbike exited the carpark entrance without looking to give way.

The young man must have got the pram onto the bus because the door was hissing shut, and the bus was pulling away and everyone’s heads relaxed and jerking back a little with the movement of the bus in exactly the same way.

Entirely

If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

Louis MacNeice
Painting by Aron Wiesenfeld