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

“Come see the true flowers of this pained world.”


Outside, a young boy threads his way across the road and through the traffic. He is guiding a small dog on a lead and he is not watching the traffic. But the traffic watches him and slows down, the drivers look at him kindly. He takes such a long time, encouraging the dog around and through the terrifying dust, the awful engines. He doesn’t pull on the lead even once. And I think that I have never seen such a magnificent show of gentleness.

The last week before Christmas: people are anxiously considering gifts and hoping that I gift wrap. A man brought the Women’s Weekly Farm House Cookbook to the counter. He said: my wife has been looking for this for ages. I don’t know if it will improve the cooking though.

A lady told me that she has a horror of bushfires.

Robert is anxious for a copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manley P. Hall. He comes in to discuss psychotherapy and theories of dreaming.

Three young tradesmen pass the window, one was lighting a cigarette. He said: this is a magic little book shop isn’t it. His workmates ignore him.

I said to a child visiting with her grandmother: do you like to read? And she said: no.

One morning two women are buying science books and they are frantic because they must get to the airport. They loom over the counter and over Robert and criticise baggage limits. They have chosen books on philosophy and they sweep Robert out of the door with them on gusts of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

I can continue to read The Historian in short bursts. I should like to ask someone about the Slovenian Alps. It seems logical to me that Dracula is still alive. I had asked Robert about it and he said: we are all brainwashed by the government.

Then a lady said to me she had better go and get her husband to come and have a look. He was over minding the dog. Soon she came back without him. She said he can wait, she decided to come back herself and have a good look at the Agatha Christies. She said he was moaning at her to get him a couple of good detectives but she wasn’t going to bother with him right now.

I am asked for A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and The Philokalia Volume 4. Then I was asked for Crafting Qualitative Research: Working in the Post-Positivist Traditions by Pushkala Prased.

A retired customer said to David that the unstructured life is very very satisfying and that 50 is when we begin our creativity. David said to her that when we read Haiku we use both sides of the brain, that when we read the final line both sides of the brain are engaged and this accounts for the power and profundity of Haiku. They regard each other, very pleased.

A customer came in with a motorcycle helmet and wearing a T-shirt that said: Holdens were created to keep dickheads out of Fords. He asked for Wilbur Smith and Danielle Steele. He talked for some time about Bryce Courtenay.

Then it is quiet again.

June came back to talk about Spike Milligan; she couldn’t phone me because their pensions did not allow them the expense of mobile phones. She told me that John was tricky to live with, (she said it cheerfully)… been with him a long time. But you know, maybe he might change.She’d always thought it, you know. June is brave. She holds on to the counter as she talks, holds on to her hopes.

Outside a motorcyclist is rebuked for parking in the bus zone. Inside, a small boy is leaning over the biographies, leaning against the window and he says: everybody gets mad at Christmas, like my teacher. His mother is looking through the vintage books and first editions. She says: never mind. Here, don’t lean on Nelson Mandela, you might read that one day. But he replies that he probably won’t.

He says: can we get gelati now?


“Come see the true


Of this pained world.”

Basho Matsuo: On Love and Barley

Goodbye, Merry Christmas…


The school term is not finished and Christmas has not yet quite begun. There is a small dip in between and we are all in it. Except for Robert who is busy quarrelling with the bank because they are trying to make him extinct. There are no lulls or lows in Robert’s life, just a fervent onwards. He came in to say that he does not enjoy Christmas and that he is going to begin reading Chinese History.

An old lady told me a joke she heard in the 1960s. She said it was from The Goon Show. She said this series made her husband very happy indeed. I know her husband, he is the one who bought a series of Spike Milligan biographies because his friend stole his originals and never returned even one of them. He said that friend was an arsehole. But here now, is his wife asking me to find and set aside a book on the Goon Show as a Christmas present for him

Many readers speak with authority: C. J. Box has a flowing style. Henry Lawson is so colonial. Simone De Beauvoir is essential. Tirra Lirra By the River is heavily symbolic. Richard Flanagan is masterful. Di Morrissey is non-gender specific.

Sometimes their faces have a desperate expression in case they cannot argue effectively on behalf of their book. But they always can. I always wonder: what is it you found in The Good Earth, Pinocchio, The Maltese Falcon, All Quiet on the Western Front? Or in Helen Garner, Will Self, Nino Culotta or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I always wonder what they found and why they did.

When I read Heidi, very young, I corrected my impression of bread and cheese eaten together and eaten outside. I do not know why or how this happened but I have always craved bread and cheese together and outside ever since.

When I read The Hobbit, I adjusted my idea of bravery and size. And when I read The Stone Book by Alan Garner and the child climbed to the roof of the church with her father, I could smell the hot stones and this made me very happy. But I don’t know why.

I was asked for the Implantable Defibrillator Therapy: A Clinical Guide and also for The Count of Monte Cristo.

A man advised me to read John Grisham.

Visitors are anxious to begin their Christmas Shopping but end up purchasing books for themselves.

Sharon is buying gifts for her children’s school teachers and she sits on the floor and reads out loud. She reads lines from the books and sometimes her voice drops into a new lilt. Then it changes and she sounds familiar to me again. Then again into a curious downward slide, with sounds and drops in sound exotic to me; it is Chinese. She brings some poetry books (Ted Hughes, Robert Burns, John Keats) to the counter and begins to talks to me of the cultural revolution in China in the 1970s. She said it was terrible.

She said; this is China, this is my country… literature was banned during this time, as was music… and children were encouraged to report their own parents and one boy, he did this and never saw his mother again. She said: can you imagine that? We stood silently looking out of the window together at the sunny road and tried to imagine it. I said no, I couldn’t imagine it. She says she must get going, there is so much to do, but she sits back down on the floor and begins reading out loud from her book again.

I listen to the words dip and wilt  and then then suddenly break from sound to sense for me and she is in English again and I am wishing that I could do this. She said to me: We must all read, must know things and we must just read…..then she said: goodbye, merry Christmas.

I am asked for The Good Earth (two copies) and Possum Magic and for details of the Christmas Pageant. A lady phones me for The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped.

An old man came into the shop and said: I’m back. But I could not remember him. He said: but I love to read Colleen McCullough.

He also said sadly that he has just been to Mannum to visit his friend. His friend is knocking on eighty years (and he himself has already kicked eighty in the backside) but he could not remember where his friend lived and so he came home again.

I found The Thorn Birds and hopefully presented it and he looked at it carefully. He said: but this is the one I have been wanting, how did you do that?

I said that it is just luck.

He said well, well, well!