…this is my way of reading…

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”


Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Image by Kyle Brock

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson

This life, by Andrew Greig

It is a big sky and its changes,

the sea all round and the waters within.

It is the way sea and sky

work off each other constantly,

like people meeting in Alfred Street,

each face coming away with a hint

of the other’s face pressed in it.

It is the way a week-long gale

ends and folk emerge to hear

a single bird cry way high up.

It is the way you lean to me

and the way I lean to you, as if

we are each other’s prevailing;

how we connect along our shores,

the way we are tidal islands

joined for hours then inaccessible,

I’ll go for that, and smile when I

pick sand off myself in the shower.

The way I am an inland loch to you

when a clatter of white whoops and rises…

It is the way Scotland looks to the South

the way we enter friends’ houses

to leave what we came with, or flick

the kettle’s switch and wait.

This is where I want to live,

close to where the heart gives out,

ruined, perfected, an empty arch against the sky

where birds fly through instead of prayers

while in Hoy Sound the ferry’s engines thrum

this life this life this life.

Painting by Jane Glue

The kids

Came in to the bookshop all at once. Twenty five of them, or maybe six. I couldn’t count them. They talked so hard. They were never still, roaming and picking books up, tapping and turning, and squatting down, three of them, over one book as though it were a map of the evening’s plan. Were they one family or a group of friends?

They turned out to be both. Two families, all friends. Because later, the mothers came in and did the same thing. Than a husband – who could not enter the conversation of the mothers, and so returned to the bakery.

But the children. They had read everything. I caught the tail ends.

‘I might get that.’

‘That’s the second book.’

‘I know.’

‘Where’s the other book?’

‘There’s no what?’

‘I’m not gunna read it.’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Trilogy…The Hunger Games’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Ok. First book good, second book ok, third book I actually liked it.’

‘But it wasn’t a satisfying ending.’

‘I know.’

‘I got halfway.’

‘Yeah. Same. I’ve read that though. And that. But not that.’

‘It’s good.’

‘They should do another one.’

‘I know, right.’

‘He should write the next one.’

‘I wish there was more of them.

‘Have you ever read all night?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Same.’

‘Look what I’ve got. I’m getting it.’

‘Look at this.’

On and on they went. There were sudden silences when everybody was caught in something at the same time. Then on they surged.

‘Hey.’

‘Woah.’

‘Look.’

‘Wait.’

‘Hey crazy guys. Let’s just read everything here.’

‘Except the gardening books.’

‘Oh my god, yeah. Not them.’

Suddenly they began to leave. There was someone outside tapping on the window. He called though the door, ‘Where’s the rest of you?’

They answered, ‘The bakery’.

Image by Hajin Bae

She carried the books; he carried her bag so she could carry the books

This lady has been here before, but I don’t remember her husband. Anyway, she just kept on piling the books up. She found it hard to reach upwards; she asked me to pull this one down, and that one down, and now maybe that one. The books were all classics, and she’d read them all before. She was excited to get Brett Easton Ellis, and then again to get On the Road.

He carried her handbag over his arm. He said to me, ‘You wait, we won’t be able to get all of these in the car!’ And he looked at her proudly.

He walked around the shop. He found one book for himself. When they left, he carried everything because she was reading as she walked and had no hands to spare.

Rembrandt used to do that

John came in today. He’s always looking for history. He always has a list. The list is in a huge notebook with creased and folded pages, and with a pencil eased in and held against the muscles of the book’s spine.

He is usually quite worked up. This is always because he has found more reading.

‘For God’s sake, more reading. And I’m getting on in life.’ He leans hopelessly against the counter.

We go through the list. Today it is John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who died in 1946.

‘I really need this.’ (Essays in Persuasion).

He tells me about his high school. ‘The maths teacher used to beat me.’

‘And I want this one.’ (A Treatise on Possibility).

‘And this. Can you get this?’ (Essays in Biography).

Suddenly he asks me about Clive Cussler. ‘Does he write his own books?’

I said that he did. But then, later on, he collaborated with other writers.

John gave a shout of laughter. ‘Like Rembrandt, then! He used to get his students to do some of his stuff. You know, the apprentices. There they were, all doing the backgrounds.’

He kept laughing. His beard swung about. Other customers looked around.

‘And John Macarthur. You know him? It was Elizabeth that ran the place, did the sheep, brought in the merinos. Not him, the old scoundrel. Not the same thing as Clive Cussler of course. But it was still Elizabeth that brought in the merinos.’

Then he left, taking his notebook and pencil, and with his beard subdued for the time being.

Self Portrait with Saskia by Rembrandt c.1635

When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

Notes on the year right now right here

The year went fast. It hopped about with anxiety many times. People came to the shop even when I was closed. People rang me and emailed me and texted me. People kept reading, increased their reading, and many people began reading.

Classic literature and poetry were purchased the most followed by history. Self-help sold the least. Fiction outsold nonfiction.

Locals and regulars became more and more important whether they purchased a book or not.

My landlord made it possible for me to stay even when I had to close.

Young readers bought the most books. Children still knelt on the floor and shouted to me that they had already read Peppa Pig, the same way they did last year.

Some customers purchased enormous stacks of reading to help me out, and thought that I did not notice this, but I did, and it did help me out.

Many of the visitors who came in angry in April were not angry in November.

It took three times longer to order in books for customers, but not a single person complained about it except me.

My fantasy and science fiction shelves need restocking. Everything by Anh Do sold out. I sold more Charles Dickens than ever before. I hardly sold any biographies except ones about dogs. I couldn’t get in any Asterix books.

I listened to a podcast about ancient Rome and took all the Roman history books home for myself. I discovered Iris Murdoch (and took all those books home too).

I was asked for Moby Dick about ten times.

A mother who loves reading came in with her son and said that mothers who read always have sons that read. Not so with daughters. Until much later.

Two customers died this year and left two holes there.

I never saw young people work so hard as the young people did this year in Woolworths across the road. This is not a reflection on Woolworths. It’s a reflection on those young people themselves.  

I cleaned about 3000 little handprints off the front door, same as any year.

Trucks still park across the driveway, same as any year.

People still come in thinking I’m the bakery, same as any year.

None of these things annoy me anymore.

Child reading

It’s a summer day, but cool outside and blowing rain. She’s in here. She’s silent. Such silence: her hair a polished curtain which swings once. I can’t see her book. She leans over the page. She leans back and gazes up at the page. She sits. Swings her feet. Stands thinking. Replaces the book and selects another one. Stands thinking. Her mother returns to tell her there is a magnificent dog outside, a wolfhound, a real one, a beautiful one, and the child shakes her head, the curtain of hair sways, the mother withdraws.

Stands thinking, sits, reads.