The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

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

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….

My books at home

Many people ask me about these. So here they are.

I have books in every room. I started collecting books at age seven, but I don’t know why. I now have about twelve thousand books. I am going to read them all. They are shelved by colour.

They were once shelved beautifully in alphabetical order, but when I moved the shelves each country lost most of its citizens. Now Terry Pratchett sits next to Margaret Atwood and does not mind. The histories and books of immediate interest are shelved bum down and pages up so I cannot see who they are. I don’t mind. The children’s flats are out on the floor, hundreds of them, where the grandsons squat and lean over them, point, and shout, and drop bits of ginger biscuits over the pages. The books lay there flattened, creased, and joyful. Every single room has shelves of books. Once, a friend’s family gave me their library, and it lives here, has braided itself amongst those already here, Russian history and Judy Blume, Greek Myths and Harry Potter companionable every night.

One room has a shelf with books that earned a place there because of their colour. One must be bright and weighty. Thus the Cairo trilogy is there. Also Carpentaria, and a set of Trollopes in peacock blue, a fat boxy collection of striped world classics and Geronimo Stilton, that wondrous mouse and his sister, Thea, even more astonishing. Another shelf is of books I’m going to read. This is a good category. It has 954 books.

One shelf is all red. One is books from when I was young. That I’m still going to read. I have a guest room for guests. It has literature and guests are expected to read it if they are still sober when they go to bed. Books dressed in leather have a shelf. Old stuff has a shelf. Books too big to shelve have a table. Books I am going to part with have a wall. These have been there for twenty years.

Books I just got have a chair. This has become two chairs, and here is where I carry books home from the shop in case customers get them before me. I look at these to remind myself that I have a problem.