The lady who read The Silver Brumby

Old Woman Reading Boris Mayorov (2)

Two ladies, friends, came in together and split immediately into classics and crime. A third lady entered, passed her friends without greeting and folded herself into young readers; horses, ponies, Australian classics, where she sat with The Silver Brumby until the others had finished. She looked up once to say that I did not have the complete series here. She said she thought that I would have that. And Tennyson.
One of the other ladies had worked hard to bring down a volume of Heinrich Boll, short stories from the top shelf – she was delighted because as a young girl she had read this book in German. She’d had to translate one of the stories from German to English at school. If only she’d had this very book she could have cheated the whole assignment through. Both ladies leaned in and laughed darkly. The Silver Brumby lady read on silently.
The friend who had read Boll in German brought the book to me and described one story, a girl who crossed a bridge halfway but would go no further; she had never forgotten this story. They prepared to leave, rustling, packing, removing reading glasses.
The third lady brought her books to the counter and reminded me that I didn’t have the complete set (or Tennyson) and that she was disappointed.
She said, you’ve probably not read Tennyson.
She said, you’re a thousand years too young. I looked at her, delighted.

Artwork: Old Woman Reading, Boris Mayorov

Reading

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When things are difficult, reading is such consolation. It is thought that life is for living, not for merely reading about, and this is true.
But as with all art, what we are gazing at and the quality of our watching, makes a difference. Some books console, and other distract and others entertain. Many stories reaffirm and add to what we already like. Some writing keeps us liking what we already know.
But reading, like any set of complicated muscles, can move us further. And reading, if given permission, will transfer gently along the contours of our fearful selves, as all great art can, if allowed. This, in turn, can allow us permission to consider what we, all of us, hold in our ghostly hearts.
The greatest literature is by nature provoking rather than judgemental – to provoke without verdict is complex and risky and so the greatest artists rarely present answers.
They, all of them, seem to have halted everything in order to dive.

Fiction, if allowed, can breach defences with undimming compassion.

 

 

Artwork by Leng Jun

 

 

 

 

‘I fear nothing when I am doing right,’ said Jack.

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“ I fear nothing when I am doing right,’ said Jack.

‘Then,’ said the lady in the red cap, ‘you are one of those who slay giants.”

Andrew Lang, The Red Fairy Book

 

There are three teenage girls here and they are looking at Jules Verne and I am curious. One of them asks for Sherlock Holmes, another has chosen The Great Gatsby and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and the third girl purchases Les Misérables – she tells me she is up for it. They all three of them stand in the door way, the door cannot quite close. They are standing in the doorway and they are looking closely at the Les Misérables and it is 1331 pages long. A man waits patiently to enter but they are so busy. One girl tells her friends she is up for it, this huge book.  The other says well I’m up for this: and she triumphantly shows the Harry Potter volume six, and she explains – I went up for Sherlock but he’s not there. They look at her in silence, considering and then they notice the waiting man. They are mortified and squeak the thousand apologies. They tell him they are going to the bakery and he is smiling, he is happy with their explanation.

When I looked up again from the counter there is a boy suddenly there, aged about 11, staring at me and holding a bag of coins. He said Tintin?  I remembered that he has been here before and that I should know what he needs. He waits patiently.

I have one book – Tintin in Tibet and he relaxes and pours out the coins across the counter and counts them slowly. He says: thank you so much because I love Tintin so much.

Ken told me today about his kids: This morning my kids were talking together, my son he does not want to be at school, you know how they are, but there he was talking with my daughter about the Ancient Greeks and for a long time, too. You know sometimes you think that sometimes the world’s all right, you know.

Then he disappeared into the back room and came back to show me a book about cowboys. He said THIS is a good read. He looked very happy.

A lady told me a long story about her interest in the paranormal. She thought she might have some small powers of her own.

Daryl asks for books about Hannibal, a new book mark and The Family Frying Pan. He tells me that Brother Fish is too heavy to hold. But Hannibal – you know that guy that went over the Alps and conquered the Greeks, can you get me that?

He flexes his tattoos and thinks for a while. Then he asked me for a bookmark with a crucifix on it for his family bible.

Alan and Jenny only watch SBS. They tell me in great detail why this is so.

Maria asked me did I mind if she asked how many children I had and where they all are. I did not mind at all. She said that all her daughters were gone now, left her in the dust and she is pretty happy about that. She has TEN grandchildren. She bought a book of poetry, not too much as she is still reading the Hans Christian Anderson, the delight of her days.

There is a couple in the front room and she reads aloud to her husband to test the suitability of the book. She says to her husband: he’s not six, he’s seven, he’s seven, remember?

She said: what about this one, is it too old for him? Or is it too young for him? Her husband does not answer. They leave without any book.

I, myself read on last night through my Penguin Pocket Anthology. The Reunion by John Cheever, The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin, Mother Savage by Guy De Maupassant, An Upheaval by Anton Chekhov, Roman Fever by Edith Wharton, Paul’s Case by Willa Cather.

A Party Down at the Square by Ralph Ellison is horrible. Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates is terrifying. Vandals by Alice Munro is devastating. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Marquez is beautiful.

There is Eudora Wealty and Amy Tan and Dagoberto Gilb and Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich and on and on I go through these stories and I hope they never come to an end. They, all of them decades and decades old but they are all about right here right now.

A man bought a book called Hanging: a History of Execution in Australia. I said cheerily: enjoy your book and he said:  It is the history of hanging.  Not a book to enjoy I don’t think.

I was rebuked. His wife said: Look at this! And she had Murray Bail: The Drover’s Wife. She said: I always wanted to read this.

She glances furiously at her husband.