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 child

Came in just before closing time. It’s cold. We’ve got autumn now. She is about nine. She has that child’s mouth where the teeth lead the entire face. She is picking up a set of Percy Jackson books, a huge stack, and she can’t stop grinning because they made it in time. She said, ‘We made it in time.’

Then she bellowed through the cold door, ‘DAD.’

I could see him through the glass, on the footpath and sorting through his wallet, finishing a smoke.

He came in, ‘Don’t get excited’, he said, wanting her to get excited.

She was.

‘Don’t put them in order because I already know how they go. This.’

She rearranged them slightly. ‘I’ve already read them. Dad, get them.’

He took out his wallet again and got them.

I offered a bag, but she would not part with them. They were in her arms.

‘No way,’

I understood.

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

The lovely ongoing enthusiasm of readers

In the shop, I get told about things in bits and pieces. There is never enough time for customers to explain the whole story – which in their minds is one complete coherent and catastrophic realization- but it only gets to me in fragments.

‘The Russians are a cruel people. I prefer the Druids. King Arthur, for example. And Lancelot was a complete arsehole. You can’t tell me he didn’t have something strange going on with the Danes.’

Readers are always enthusiastic and visionary.

‘Easter is for throwing things out. That’s how I was raised. Read Winnie the Pooh, and you’ll understand.’

And emphatic.

‘I had to confront the manager about the hot cross buns.’

And they are mysterious.

‘I’ve read all of these. Brilliant books. I might get that one anyway. And you’ll see something across the road in a minute. At least you will if you’ve read book 4 of these.’

And they are confident.

‘Did you know that the writer of Tarzan made it all up?’

A reader brought a copy of The End of Certainty by Paul Kelly over to me. He said, ‘There’s a lot we can learn from the Americans. But as for Blair, just leave him out of it.’ He bought three other biographies. He said, ‘Luckily, there’s no end to it.’

Children try harder. They watch your eyes when they talk and gauge your enthusiasm and your comprehension accurately. They tell the story properly, loyal to the facts and inventing nothing. In ‘Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll’, Kelsey lives in Pakistan and needs a friend. Her and her Nanna get her a doll. Called Amy Jo. They have a hard adventure. But they are all right in the end.’

They explain succinctly why they want a particular book.

‘It’s because I want it.’

Illustration by Inga Moore

No Go, the Bogeyman

How do people select a book? Well, I know it’s intensely private. Books are sharp. Readers look at them from every angle, examining especially carefully the blade.

Books, like any tool, fulfil a purpose if they are good enough. They can remove (with one sweep) a lifetime of tiring and inaccurate responsibilities. And, they can move inwards to the core of beliefs, at best an uncomfortable and confronting experience. For instance, I read Ethan Frome, and realized that I was normal. Only a blade can do this.

Readers come to the shop and pause over books for long periods of time. There is always this pause. Then they decide and carry the book to the counter.

I am respectful no matter what the book is.

I once chose a book called No Go, the Bogeyman (after a pause). I haven’t read it yet. It’s a history of terror by Marina Warner. The kind of terror that comes softly and sits with you at night. I don’t know why I bought it, but I treasure it.

Painting by Sasha Beliaev

Kindles are better

A couple came in, and he said to me, ‘But don’t you think Kindles are better? This is what I do. I go to the shop, see the book, look it up and download. See?’

 He raised both hands in the air to show me how simple it is. ‘See?’ His wife looked at me and said nothing. He shrugged his shoulders up and down to show us easiness and simplicity.

He went on talking about kindles. His wife moved over to Art and knelt down to read. He walked around, relaxed, commenting here and there. He showed me a book (Sherlock Holmes) and said, ‘Look at this.’

I looked at it, and he said, ‘Would anyone want this?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’

He nodded, ‘Ok.’ Then he said, ‘I like to read but I want to save space. See?’

I did.

Then I said that I liked kindles, I admitted to using the kindle ap, which delivered me recently a rich and full copy of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. When choosing buses and bus routes, I search for the longest slowest path to the city so I can be with Isabella and see how she recruited her health in Japan. After all, I may need to do this too. Anything that delivers literature, I want. I want a kindle.

He was polite, ‘That’s good. But what I do is…..’ He told me some more incredible things.

Then his wife came back with an enormous pile of art books, and said, ‘Here, get these,’ and he quickly pulled out his wallet and paid for all of them; it was a considerable pile, high and aching.

The Letters of the Great Artists, heavy and boxy and seductive, was on the top of the stack. It took up a lot of valuable space in the world. In it, Claude Monet complains (in a letter) of old age. He slashes a canvas because he cannot reach the high notes of the colours he needs to reach. The book is a deep scornful red with thick cream pages done by Thames and Hudson (with 150 plates, 51 in colour) and a delicious bitter coffee stain stamped on the satisfying last page, As usual, I look at the buyer darkly. Maybe I should have kept it for myself. I am likely to never see another copy. I slash at my canvas because I cannot reach all the books I need to hold.

She marched out with her books, and he followed, checking his phone for reasons to feel better.

How people browse for books

Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.

Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.

Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’

A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.

A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’

He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.

She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.

Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.

Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’

Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.

Have a go under the waterfall

This is The Dipper, a poem by by Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie. It’s impossible to write about a bird and make it breathtaking, but here it is, completed and placed by an expert for us to consider. Honoured.

 I saw that she wrote issue instead of flew. As soon as I saw issue, I saw the water give birth to the bird. The poem itself (in my head) flooded and fell, green with experience and cold and difficulties. When I saw solitary, the poem itself soared away and lit (her word) on a rock, alone, and looked at me with sunlight behind it and mockery between its claws. When a poem contains this much information and experience, I have to keep reading and re reading, clenching my small claws and hoping.

When she wrote lit instead of perched, that’s when the sunlight entered the cold, and the poem, and me. When she wrote swept stupidly, I stood still and admitted old age, a huge hot relief. This because it may be possible that I no longer have to stop the flow. When she wrote wrung, I saw the bird turn and turn again to give that ripple of solid sound. When she wrote supple, undammable, I saw bird muscle, throat muscle and opera and anger. Value and beauty are not ownable. They are beyond our hands. The last two lines won’t finish. They keep playing, calling on courage.  

This poem, if you allow it, is a massive experience.

Is this right? I don’t know. Kathleen Jamie is a master. She extracts and then sculpts what she wants to say. I am an amateur reader and can’t do that. But she makes me try hard and dig for it. Or the bird does. Something does.

Photography by Michael Woodruff

Two conversations, one inside and one outside, both at once

1) A group of six passed the windows of the shop. They were jumbled and jostling and loud. It seemed as though they have all climbed off the same bus. The tone of their conversation is concern. Their speech is stretched and knocked about. This is because it was windy. So, they repeated themselves and called and argued, trying to knead logic back into the excursion.

‘If you turn right you’ll get to Adelaide.’

‘Right?’

‘No, left. If you go right you’ll get to Harry’s.’

‘That’s where I want to go.’

‘Jesus, make up your mind, mate.’

‘What’s that? What are you saying?’

I watch them blow past, silently thanking them for life. For, of course, this is where life is.

2) There are two ladies. They are great readers, and they are friends. Or maybe they are great friends, and they are readers. They talk in doorways. I only have two doorways, so there they are, digging into the afternoon; quite close to the counter, and therefore close to me.

‘I can cope with the dead bodies, but those little Scandinavian noir things, well…yeah those.’

‘Find a dead body, you know, all that sort of stuff?’

‘That’s it!’

‘I get sick of it. I quite like McCall Smith though. When I read, everything folds around me. Don’t know where I am.’

‘Have you read The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it’s a war story?’

‘What are we talking about? Which one?’

‘Wait, do you think Google are listening to us?’

‘No doubt.’

They buy a modest stack of outstanding reads. They look at me kindly, ‘we’ll be back, don’t you worry.’

I watch them go, silently thanking them for life, for this of course, is where life is.