Amongst the books at home

Hard to choose one. Nobody home but me. Everyone usually sits amongst them. They are the walls. My dad had a study similar, and I used to play in there, building things out of books and pretending to read, which was as good as actually reading because I still made things, changed reality, added to it, made it from one colour to ninety shades of six colours, easily. Then had to go and feed the hens or something.

My children shot up, grew and left, weaving in and out of bookshelves, resisting the harping but absorbing the actual books.

Now I’m home alone and looking at the books. Hard to chose one. Thomas the Tank is on the floor again, split into a thousand small annoying paperbacks that take too long to read out loud and carry plots I can’t understand.

Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car, still kind, still has a river in it. My grandsons like the bit with the fighting.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a gun on page 12.

My Terry Pratchett paperbacks are in an Ikea cabinet with a glass door, implying value, but they are pressed to the glass, squashed and irreverent, falling out, not in order, contemptuous.

Nothing is in order. It was once, but I moved the shelves and T ended up next to B, and S landed next to the Margaret Atwoods, who quelled the unease by turning sideways. I can’t find anything. Therefore, I am reduced to what wants me. Not a lot, but tonight, I notice things. Books have fallen out, or are used to ramp matchbox cars, or for a yoga head boost. There is a history of Sand: Journey through Science and the Imagination. Maybe. The Making of Australia by David Hill, but will there be any women in it, probably not, and then Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc, where the hell did you come from? But it’s red and gold, 1123 pages, the pages creamy and silky, supple, and solid with weight, so that’s the one. It starts out, ‘Visitors who want a glimpse of Viet Nam’s traditional culture will find no better opportunity than a cruise along the Red River. A few well-chosen stopovers in this river delta dotted with sleepy thousand year old villages will provide the most curious tourist with a……and on it goes taking me to yet another place, aching with travel.

Hard to choose one. Still manage it.

This has happened to me twice

The Smile by Philippe Vlgnal

This has happened to me twice now.

Somebody has asked me for a book which I don’t have. Then somehow, somewhere, I find their book, and I ring them to let them know. They are pleased; they thank me. And then we say goodbye. But they do not hang up in time. They keep talking, not realizing that we are all still there! 

This is very funny.  I hear them exclaim, shout, roar, scream. One lady laughed, deeply, loudly, raucously. She screamed as she drove:
‘Ah. Ah. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha OH YEEEEEE HA….’
Today, a man said, ‘Oh mate, I can’t believe it, thank you.’ And he did not hang up in time. I heard:
‘BEAUTIFUL. Fuck me. She got it. She found one. Fuck me!’

Painting The Smile by Philippe Vlgnal

Constantly shocked and constantly happy

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Today is so cold that it seems funny. And our Flinders Rangers has had snow. Customers come in shivering and happy. There is rain.  The cold enters my shop under the door, sliding constantly and silently like a slice of cold glass as long as the day.

Marion comes in with screwed up eyes and very happy. ‘Can you feel that?’

A couple browse and leave reluctantly, holding the door open for a while before dropping off the jetty into the freezing lake, holding hands.

Robert is hilarious with anticipation. He orders more books. Someone has backed into his car recently. Actually about six people have. The size of the car parks is criminal. We criticize the council in comfortable tones. We talk about yoga. A young woman, looking through women’s classics, asks if yoga will help her with a sore neck. She and Robert exchange news in joyful symptoms.

A man passes the shop outside wearing shorts and a t shirt. He has muddy boots and is eating something hot from a paper bag. The food must be too hot because he stops suddenly with a pained expression and sucks in air to cool the system. He raises his shoulders and closes his eyes. He is wearing the most beautiful sky blue and moss green striped soft beanie that I wish were mine.

A customer adds more titles to her already impossible library, a library that is now growing according to its own laws, and within which she has become the explorer, constantly shocked and constantly happy.

A couple visit to see if I know about the snow in the Flinders.

A crowd of students pass the windows, loud, puffing white breath. One says, ‘Well, fuck him then.’ She has her arm around a friend. Is walking and leaning in kindly. The friend is snuffling, she looks cold and loved.

A lady crosses the silent frozen road wearing gold corduroy trousers, a soft jumper, a scarf, and good solid thongs. She watches her feet as they tread gently through the water. I wonder if she knows about the snow in the Flinders.

 

 

Why read?

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I am looking at too much news. Every day there is more, and it’s loud – data and facts mostly, and many, many images.

It is like entering an art gallery and being told very quickly, loudly, and with huge authority, which pieces of art are red, which are small, which are thick, and which are useless. And then, which pieces contain wool, which ones are cold, and most importantly, which ones are bad, and may have possibly broken the law. I get 15 seconds with each piece, my face on the painting, grazed, my eyes hopeful. Then leaving with these deafening crashes of information and baffling images still sounding and still hurting. This is the news.

At the moment journalists seem to mostly locate, circle, and then humiliate. There is no context and no perspective, and therefore no understanding or compassion. I learn nothing. I remain fixed. But I have definitely honed my skills in blaming and allocating disgrace. I do this all the time. It is easy because (obviously) I am not like them.

Them:

Politicians getting it wrong, government employees doing nothing, stupid women shopping at Bunnings, idiots sneaking across borders, fools not wearing masks, not obeying, not staying home, not getting it right, not saying the right things, not avoiding the wrong things, believing silly things, buying too much, keeping too much, standing too close, driving too fast, being mean, being ugly, being critical, careless, violent, dishonest, selfish: them.

I can’t really see the problems, but I can clearly see who is to blame. I don’t understand the situations. I am distracted from solutions. I am never sure what is going on. But shaming is the most satisfying solution – because I can then forget all about. This leaves me with no clear perspective of humanity, except that it’s all someone else’s fault. Soon I will scroll my news feed for more satisfaction.

But when I read, I must return to an acute and clean discomfort – that “them” is “me”. And that there is not a single situation where I would or could be other than “them”. Literature tells me that human nature has not changed and that there is always, always more to everything. I am the same as anyone when lacerated by fear; we do what we do. What’s different is how we express it, if we get caught, and if our badness is of quick value to someone else.

But the news makers themselves – the ones who chase and choose the news, presenting these facts and those awful images, keeping us informed. What is their story? What awful deadlines and expectations do these individuals face that they must hurl so much gravel, so quickly and so powerfully.

I would like to be able to step back and understand more, consider the larger, diabolically more complex stories behind what is happening. To acknowledge my own deep and fearful place in it all. How else do I gain a consoling perspective? How else to grow compassion?

Of all the inanimate objects, of all man’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thoughts, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life.

Joseph Conrad

Notes on life and letters 1921

 

When people go past and don’t come in

Literary Roost A Fool's Errand Camille Engel (2)

It’s a rich world out there. The world that passes the windows of my shop. Not rich in money but rich in movement, intentions, and Woolies bags. And conversation; ribbons of it whip backwards:

‘Can’t believe he keeps going, the dickhead.’

‘Just say no.’

‘Another day, ok? Another day. When we get home, we’ll ask mum. Give me that fruit box.’

A lady screamed, ‘No, no, no,’ at an approaching dog. The owners were offended. ‘Nothing wrong with OUR dog,’ they said darkly, looking at her dog, a chocolate coloured beauty, rubbery with joy and not being obedient. ‘Allowed to have an opinion’, they were told.

I watched them trail to the bakery, wishing they’d been quicker on the retort.

But the other day, someone said, ‘Amazing these little places.’

They meant me.

‘Amazing these little places, aren’t they…’

An unseen listener  must have answered something.

‘Amazing these little places, aren’t they. That just keep going. Do they even get customers? Hope they do.’

Oh well, no need to worry – we do, we do, and we do, and even the passers by are valuable, so cheers to you all!

Painting A Literary Roost by Camille Engel

…beyond the cold clouds flinging…

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“Shall I not see that to live is to have relinquished
beauty to the sequestration of the dark,
and yet that the spirit of man, benighted, vanquished,
has folded wings, and shall use them as the lark

into the sun beyond the cold clouds flinging
her desperate hope, not reaching where she has striven
but soaring for ever beyond herself, and singing
high above earth as she is low in heaven?

Shall I not confess that mine own evil humour
and not man’s failure forged this black despair,
and while I wept, high up the golden rumour
of a lark ascending fringed the quiet air?”

Humbert Wolfe, Uncelestial City

Sculpture by Rex Homan

How to enter and exit a bookshop

Rudi Hurzlmeier (2)

Swing in. No pause. A brief greeting; eyes straight to the shelves. Eyes either light up or narrow slightly. Both are good signs. Silence, or an exclamation. Both are useful.

A lightning fast assessment, or the dithering on the mat.

Apology for having brought in a cup of coffee.

Apology for bringing in other books.

Apology for letting in the cold air.

Asking for directions.

Some visitors give surreptitious glances over both shoulders so as not to miss anything. Some boom greetings. Others whisper the whole time they are in the shop.

Some need no directions. Others want NO directions, ’It’s ok, I’ll find my way.’

Pronounce me lucky.

Some people peer in through the window for a long time. Shading their eyes, hunched and purposeful. When I look up, they are still there, staring from side to side as though watching trains come in.

People say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, can I just get around,’ gentle voices, understanding each other’s absorption. Hands in pockets. The smile, not at me, but at the books – but including me if they can. Some people can walk and read with ease. Most can’t.

Feeling around for reading glasses that are now on a different shelf.

Gasping; young people.

Paying. ‘Awesome.’ Voices now loud and confident. ‘Thanks very much.’ Even louder, almost shouting, ‘We always come here! Bye, bye bye…great, thank you, bye….’ Growing fainter.

Low laughs. Low discussions.

‘Are you actually going to read it?’ Parents.

‘I’ll get it for you.’ Lovers

‘I’m not paying for that.’ Siblings.

‘Go and wait outside.’ Retired couples.

Some people stand and read their book right in the doorway. Some move onto the footpath but cannot go any further. One family stood in a group on the footpath around The Two Towers and talked for another ten minutes. They leave things behind, drink bottles, hats, a torch.

Small children bring random books to the counter and are called from beyond to put them back. One child bought and paid for The Lord of the Rings and said, ‘This is for me.’

A lady standing behind him said, ‘Well done indeed.’

People help each other get books off the high shelves, laughing laughingly. Tell me about the weather, or the traffic, or their shopping.

Tell a long story and ask me where they were going with it. But I can’t help them. Some people lean their foreheads on one arm against a shelf and thus read alone. Some people talk loudly to strangers about what they think and the strangers edge politely away. Once there was an argument about Scott Morrison which became ugly. Once, an argument about racehorses which became boring. Children pile and count coins on the floor which go clink, clink, clink in desperate piles of hope. I liked to change the prices on their books so they get half of their coins back. But then they look at me in shock, unhappy at having counted wrong. Now I count with more respect, offer the discount at the end. But many children remain uneasy with this.

Older men have a habit of demanding a discount, looming over me, tapping the wallet, confident, assuming I will ease their $9.  I don’t.

Once a teenager brought me a box of his own books and would not take any money for them. He said it was to help me stay open because things had been hard lately these days. He told me about each book; they were not discards; they were his own library.

Children keep jacket hoods on, peek at me as they pass the counter. Parents press books toward them, the children press them away again politely and look at me again.

Women meet unexpectedly and laugh loudly, ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Oh you know, getting on with it.’

‘Yeah mate.’

A parent says, ‘I don’t want you buying books just because of the covers.’

A child stops still in the doorway, stops walking forwards and steps from side to side in an astonished rocking movement, ‘This is like the movie.’ He holds up his book, and his family stumble and fall all over him. ‘Move, Marcus, don’t stop like that.’ But he is too happy. He can’t hear them, and he stays right there staring at the dragon, rocking gently and forces the family to divide and flow around him, finally scooping him up at the rear – by his father, who says, ‘Gotta go, little man.’

They go, they’re loud; I guess they will take the little man to the bakery…..goodbye…

 

Illustration by Rudi Hurzlmeier

 

Undefeated, always

Inge Look (3)

I like the way they enter the shop, strongly, not opening the door but crashing it out of their way. They are scarves and swirls. They are orange and nutmeg. They are loud, beautiful, and their jewellery is long.

When they came in, one said, ‘My God, a BOOKstore’, and they entered magnificently.

‘What’s that?’

“It’s Dune. It’s making a comeback.’

‘Oh really.’

‘For God’s Sake.’

‘I love Dune.’

‘So did I, but isn’t it dated…’

‘No.’

‘You can’t beat Georgette Heyer, is what I always say.’

Her friends look at her kindly.

‘There’s a new book by…who was it…?’

‘Look at this.’

They argue about Family Circle. They are loud. They are not in agreement about the basics. One of them has a grown child who is causing anxiety. One grips the arm of another. They lean close to read the titles on the Young Reader table; one says, ‘Don’t they read some good things these days, look at this with the dragons on it.’

But they have to go. They move as an army, knowing precisely when and how to move, and why.  How to defeat the enemy. They are ladies of a magnificent age. I do not want them to go. I want to know things. But they have to go; there is work to do.

When they leave, one says, ‘Do you want to try for a loaf of bread next door?’

They go. They leave, taking Georgette Heyer and Family Circle Jams and Preserves. Undefeated, always.

 

Illustration by Inga Look