Space is elusive. It’s slippery, difficult to pin down. Space is at once personal and public, material and metaphorical. It can cheer you up or get you down. Space is political. It can confine or liberate. Space is contested and hierarchical. Of the numerous permutations of space governing our lives, three defined 2015 for me.
Accompanying me as I write, is the rough rapid beat of a hammer interspersed with the staccato rhythm of the nail gun. The musicians responsible, not visible from my vantage point, are perched high in the scaffolding that surrounds our ill-fated chimney. I am of course resigned to the intrusion, this background music has been playing in the personal and public spaces of post-earthquake Christchurch for nearly five years. That I’m present at this unsolicited performance is rather more difficult to reconcile. With an assuredly generous time-frame of nine weeks for requisite EQR (Earthquake Recovery) repairs, we moved out of our home and into rented accommodation at the end of February 2015. Astonishingly nine weeks ballooned to eight months, necessitating a second move. Ultimately, with our insurance accommodation allowance exhausted – although, squandered, is closer to the truth of it – on October 17, we returned to a partially repaired home. Gradually we have reclaimed the garage and the dining-room has been divested of excess furniture, the outliers returned to their rightful rooms. The lounge, however, remains divided territory, so disappointingly I have not been ‘unpacking my library’. No I haven’t! Twenty-fifteen was a year of living-between spaces – a metaphoric fluid shift from the intracellular space that is home, to the interstitial space – where you and your stuff don’t really belong. But it is, as Seneca observed, “the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide”[i] And so, as 2016 begins, we remain – like many other families in this city – in a state of disequilibrium, homeostasis not yet restored.
“One day there is life…And then, suddenly, it happens there is death”,[ii] opens Paul Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man, written following the sudden death of his father. Auster’s narrative, the first section of his book The Invention of Solitude, is part meditative, part forensic investigation, and it was this I reached for and reread in the days following my father’s death on April 2nd, casting aside Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, – an equally affecting account of the impact of a father’s death – which ironically, I was half way through when Dad died. That I relinquished MacDonald in favour of Auster, had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with utility. I needed a mirror. And on the Richter scale of grief, MacDonald’s seemed at a magnitude far greater than mine, while Auster, dry-eyed and accepting, came closer. Auster’s father was in good health when he died, my dad had small cell lung cancer, with local spread into the mediastinal lymph nodes at the time of his diagnosis in June 2014. But, like Auster’s father, dad also, had died suddenly. Swiftly, confounding even the doctors and nurses at the hospice, to which he’d been admitted two days prior, for symptom management. Abruptly, and without undue fuss, dad it seemed, had just disappeared. In the days subsequent, bereft and struggling to assemble him again for the eulogy I must write, I wondered if dad had ever really been here. And that’s not to say he shirked the responsibilities that came with marriage – he and mum were just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary when he died – and fatherhood. But, to me at least, dad was always just out of reach; inscrutable. I reread Portrait of an Invisible Man, to both absolve and console myself. That it was alright to feel as if you’d never really known your father, because, as Auster wrote, “If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”[iii] I’d found Auster’s narrative more than twenty years ago. It was revelatory. Insofar as, in Auster’s portrayal, certain words, certain passages, were like windows through which I would catch glimpses of my father. Even to the story Auster recounts, when his father – described as “always a man of habit”[iv] – in the week after shifting house, absentmindedly returned to their former home, made his way upstairs and lay down in the bedroom as he typically did before dinner, all the while blissfully unaware that anything had changed. Remarkably, dad – also a man of habit – had done almost the exact same thing, but realising his mistake, somewhat sooner than Auster’s father, had stopped short of opening the front door.
Although the trajectory of their lives differed – Auster’s father was divorced and, at the time of his death, had lived alone for fifteen years – as children, both had survived significant events. And, as Auster speculated, “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.”[v] It was only after his father’s death, and quite by chance, that Auster discovered his grandmother had murdered his grandfather. I, on the other hand, had grown up knowing something of dad’s story. His mother died soon after his birth and his British born father returned to England. So, effectively orphans, dad and his older brother, were taken into care.
I had reached for Portrait of an Invisible Man seeking absolution and consolation, but in rereading what I really found was some perspective. Whether because of, or in spite of, the circumstances of those formative years, dad wore life with equanimity. And perhaps, in the end that was all I needed to know.
Yes, it was a holiday, but it was also a means of escape from the diet of disinformation fed to us by EQR for the past seven months. We sought refuge in Wellington for a week at the end of September. And needless to say, I resolved to visit as many bookshops as time – and family patience – would allow. I reasoned it would be an antidote to EQR-angst, a salve for the spirit. Thankfully the capital is blessed with many fine bookshops and, as I discovered, book hunting adventures boosted by a new publication, Book Wellington: The Booklover’s Guide to the Capital, designed by Fitz Beck Creative. Whimsically described, “like a pub crawl for books” by the Association of New Zealand Booksellers, the map offers the truly obsessed with directions to, and descriptions of, eighteen bookshops. Familiar with many of them, I began my pilgrimage at a favourite, Pegasus Books, situated on the Left Bank of Cuba St.
Spread over a warren of rooms, John Hoskins bouquinerie offers a rich array of books, from antiquarian to nearly new. I lingered contentedly amongst shelves that served a bouillabaisse of Poetry, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Classics, Mythology and much more besides, before chatting briefly with John. A bookseller for fourteen years – Pegasus first stamped its hoof in Newtown – John was upbeat about the book business, telling me he saw no sign of a downturn.
Pointing enthusiastically towards a stack of booklets atop a low shelf, just across from his desk, he asked if I’d be in town long enough to catch some of the events at the inaugural Featherston Booktown, of which he would be part. Sadly, I would not. Nonetheless, I popped one of the rather eye-catching black and white booklets into my bag as I was leaving, at least I could read about what I would miss.
I journeyed on further up Cuba St, bound for The Ferret Bookshop, where I would, as owner Terry encourages, poke my nose in.
Opening its doors in 1979, happily, The Ferret can boast of longevity not enjoyed by its mammalian namesake. And although requisite earthquake strengthening over the past few years has twice seen The Ferret scurry further up the trouser leg of Cuba St, Terry’s eclectic collection of books remains constant. Tucking my purchase, the first UK edition of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, into my bag, I left The Ferret and headed back down Cuba St towards Manners St and Arty Bees Books.
With acres of space in which to house more than 100,000 books, Arty Bees is, as it claims, the largest independent seller of new and used books in Wellington. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Arty Bees, never mind, because you’re bound to find other books you didn’t know you were looking for.
But, if you find yourself truly out of your depth, as I did on a second visit with my teenage son Max, happily, help is never far away. Matt Morris, Sci-Fi sage and Arty Bees manager – although alchemist better describes what it is that Matt does. Let me illustrate. We arrived at the counter and I asked Matt if he could suggest some Sci- Fi titles. He turned to Max, smiled and asked with alacrity, “robots or magicians”, (it was magicians) “action or beautiful worlds”, (it was beautiful worlds). Then he stepped from behind the counter, and with a wave of his arm, said “follow me, young man”. And with that they were gone. After much deliberation with Matt, Max settled on Magician by Raymond E. Feist, while I jotted down names of the other authors Matt recommended; Fritz Leiber, David Eddings, and Elizabeth Moon.
We left Arty Bees carrying books and wearing smiles. “That guy was quite cool” Max ventured. I nodded in wholehearted agreement, and told him he’d probably just experienced that wondrous phenomenon, bookshop alchemy. Those serendipitous, magical moments that no algorithm can replicate because, they’re intrinsically human. And why, often when you leave one of these sacred spaces you feel in possession of a gift rather than a purchase.
[i] Seneca. The terrors of earthquakes. From Natural Questions, in Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by, C.D.N. Costa, 2005, Penguin Books, London, pp. 112-113.
[ii] Auster, Paul. Portrait of an invisible man, in The Invention of Solitude, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p.5.
[iii] Ibid., pp.19-20.
[iv] Ibid., p.8.
[v] Ibid., p.36.
Here’s how it started. I’m on my way home from work, listening as I usually do, to Radio New Zealand National, when I’m confronted by news that although childhood obesity is predicted to surpass smoking as the foremost risk to health next year, the government yet again, is rejecting demands for a 20% tax on fizzy drinks. The item went onto quote from a 2009 OECD report, that ranked us the third fattest among that group of industrialised nations, and the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, which revealed one in three New Zealand adults were obese. How depressing. If I hadn’t been behind the wheel some serious slouching – think young Alvy Singer, worrying about the universe expanding, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – would have been in order. Instead I made do with recasting and re-imagining one of my favourite scenes. It went something like this.
“Why are you depressed Kim?” Prime Minister Key asks.
“It’s something she heard on the radio” replies Health Minister Coleman.
“New Zealand’s tamariki (children) are expanding”, says Kim.
“New Zealand’s tamariki are expanding?” queries the Prime Minister.
“Well, in terms of importance, our tamariki are everything, and if they are expanding someday they will get sick and then everybody’s future will be pretty bleak”, warns Kim.
“What is that your business!”, says the visibly exasperated Health Minister who, turns to the Prime Minister, adding, “she’s even read the WHO Interim Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity!
“Because, Minister Coleman”, answers Kim, “your unequivocal claim that further regulation is not required, seems somewhat disingenuous. Both, the NZ Beverage Guidance Panel Policy Brief: Options to Reduce Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) Consumption in NZ, June 2014 and Benchmarking Food Environments: Experts Assessments of Policy Gaps and Priorities for the New Zealand Government, July 2014, considered the introduction of an excise tax of at least 20% on sugar-sweetened beverages a priority and urged for immediate government action. A year on and you are still dragging your feet. This, despite Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, and, co-chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, noting that, attention on any one factor, or exclusively on the health sector, is unlikely to be effective[i], and consensus support, in the WHO Interim Report, for the application of fiscal measures to change food purchase behaviours.”
The Prime Minister interjects, “But Kim, taxes are problematic politically. We mustn’t forget the New Zealand Food & Beverage Industry is part of the governments Business Growth Agenda. Basically the decision comes down to a trade-off between human expansion and market expansion. That’s why we need to ignore this while we’re here.”
Forget slouching, I needed a lie down after that imaginary conversation. What’s to be done? Apropos of the tax impasse, and in the spirit of every little bit counts, perhaps a novel – pun intended – intervention to make an environment less obesogenic might fly. As I work in a hospital it seems a reasonable place, wherein to start dreaming. Clearly, while we have our fair share of vending machines, whose products, will, without doubt, weigh you down, we lack a viable alternative, which instead, might lighten, and liven us up. It occurred to me, there was a literary analogue to the snack vending machine – I’d come across it on-line a couple of years ago – a book vending machine, created for the Monkey’s Paw, a Toronto bookshop. The brain child of animator Craig Small, the coin operated Biblio-Mat, discharges randomly chosen old books.
Perfect. As well as the obvious health benefits of a zero sugar, zero fat, vending machine, a Biblio-Mat would sate the appetites of staff, patients and visitors to Christchurch Hospital, who have been bereft of books since the 2011 earthquake, when the University of Canterbury bookshop’s satellite store, a small literary oasis, amid the bustle that is hospital life, closed indefinitely. Though, another conventional bookshop seems unlikely, perhaps there is room for a smaller scale, book dispensary. Call it folly if you will, but I am quietly confident. After all, Cantabrians young and old, have embraced the rather wonderful Gap Filler initiative, Dance-O-Mat, a coin operated former laundromat washing machine, powering four speakers, encircling a custom-built dance floor.
It seems to me, common to both ‘Mat’s’ – besides quirkiness and coin operation – is possibility. The Dance-O-Mat provides a place of possibility, the Biblio-Mat, books of possibility, and resultant action – dancing or reading – the vehicle to; lift spirits, invigorate body and mind, distract and delight. And even though I do not possess an entrepreneurial bone in my body, today, strangely enough, I’ve been reading all about licensed production.
[i] Gkuckman, P., Nishtar, S., & Armstrong, T. (2015). Ending childhood obesity: a multidimensional challenge. The Lancet, Vol., 385, pp. 1048-1050.
Is there a better way to spend a free Friday than foraging amongst tables of retired books at the Christchurch City Libraries yearly sale? Clearly the lengthening queue of assorted Cantabrian’s I encountered recently would suggest, there is not. Gathered well before the nine o’clock opening and in expectation of a bumper crop this year, we came equipped with all manner of conveyances for the harvest; wheeled suitcases, the large canvas hold-all, backpacks of varying sizes and the modest reusable shopping bag. We were, I fancied – wages and location aside – the bibliophilic equivalent of the seasonal picker. As it was we stood, an occasional pleasantry exchanged with a nearby queuer, in otherwise muted anticipation in the foyer of the Christchurch City Council’s Pioneer Recreation & Sport’s Centre, home to the sale for roughly the past ten years. Sans Lycra we appeared incongruous beneath signage offering directions to Aerobics, the Den and Dance Studio and Fitness Centre; the juxtaposition of the corporeal and the cerebral.
Shortly we would be hurrying towards the Stadium; two thousand, one hundred and fifty square metres of sprung wooden floor and configured for three basketball courts, three netball courts, six volleyball courts and twelve badminton courts. While logic said space was the reason for this rather odd choice of venue – we used to be cheek by jowl in the Stringleman Room at the Christchurch Convention Centre – immobile amid activity I could not ignore the nagging feeling that perhaps a vigorous workout would be better for me and immediately regretted having let my gym membership lapse. Such is the persisting unease between bodies and books; a preference for action over contemplation
Although I grew up in a home where books were valued and reading encouraged, the rider it seemed, was context; tucked-up-in-bed-with-a-book, legitimate at night-time, morphed into lolling-about-with-a-book past certain daylight hours. My mother would look disapprovingly at any bedridden, book-holding child past nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, you needed to be up and ‘doing’ and reading was certainly not considered ‘doing’. Evidently other mothers experienced similar despair if their offspring favoured sedentary rather than active pursuits. An avid reader throughout childhood and adolescence, New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi says her mother’s preferred phrase to describe her book induced indolence was, “the laziness drips of her”. And, author Brigid Brophy, in a 1974 essay written for Bookmarks: Writers on their Reading, remembers her mother demanding, she “stop reading books and get out into the fresh air”. Now, oddly enough, given the almost umbilical connection many children – mine included – have with their electronic devices, books are enjoying new status as an eminently favourable childhood pursuit, “the young should be immersed in a culture of the sentence, not the screen”, espouses Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Dirda in, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.
So perhaps it’s just my age; at fifty-three could this be my Montaigne moment? Because even Michel Montaigne – probably about fifty-three – when he wrote of books, and the companionship they afforded him, as the third and “much more certain” kind of relationship, more so than friendship and love, also worried about their detrimental effects on the body saying:
Books exercise the mind, but the body, whose interests I have never neglected either, remains meanwhile inactive, and grows heavy and dull. I know of no excess that does me more harm, or that I should avoid more strictly in these my declining years.
(Montaigne Essays Book Three: On Three Kinds of Relationships)
Of course my twenty-first century angst was perhaps less pressing than Montaigne’s, he died six years later in 1592, although not from inactivity secondary to reading, but from a peritonsillar abscess. Improved life expectancy aside I remained uneasy, surely I was at even greater risk given the ease of acquisition – thanks to the e-reader I needn’t leave the comfort of my bed – and the proliferation of books since Montaigne’s time. But an abundance of books can overwhelm and ironically I’m just as likely to suffer from reading paralysis or, conversely, worried about ever catching up, wolf them down without pause to savour their taste; the goal in this instance, as reading guru Robertson Davies wrote in, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, is wanting “not to read a book”, but “to have read it –no matter how.” If I succumb to the latter, the effect of this hurried approach to reading is likely two-fold, not only will my body become “heavy and dull”, but worryingly, so too will my mind.
“Goody, it’s open”, announced someone nearer the front of the queue and suddenly – thoughts interrupted – I joined the dash towards the stadium doors. Past the complimentary plastic library bags for the ill-prepared, and a few roving Friends of the Library volunteers, admiring the results of their labour, we scattered, drawn to tables laden with our preferred diet of books: Fiction & Literature, Travel, History, Sport, Art and, for the undecided, ‘Something for Everyone’. As always I began with ‘Fiction & Literature’, the books atop the table stacked three deep and still plenty of cartons lying in wait below.
Across the table I spied, Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America, and stretched over to claim it. Grasping the hardback copy I felt its heft in my hand, its absence from the row hardly noticeable, there were so many books. Odd as it may seem, this venue reminded me that just as the reading of a physical book is a uniquely bodily experience, so too is their acquisition; walking and stretching and crouching and grasping and lugging.
Here at least, physical books were very much alive and no shortage of readers willing to forsake the effortless, in favour of ferreting, presumably hankering for the feel of paper rather than polycarbonate between their fingers. So maybe I could relax, confident that active acquisition would offset any perils associated with later inactivity. Still, I would need to choose carefully, because what “our embarrassment of books” should show us, says Gabriel Zaid (translated by Natasha Wimmer) in So Many Books, is to accept how little we will ever know, “and maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us.”
Possessing a sharp eye for spotting a bookshop, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealing in: All Kinds of Old & Rare Books in Urdu & Persian, came briefly into view from the mini-bus window. As far as I’m concerned no holiday is quite complete without discovering at least one bookshop. New Delhi it seemed would be no different. Although requesting a stop in the middle of a congested New Delhi road just to satisfy my bibliophilic idiosyncrasies did seem foolhardy, particularly as I am unable to read either Urdu or Persian. So whether – apart from their signage – Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealt in any kind of English books would, for the meantime, remain a mystery[i].
I was not discouraged. On the contrary, this first sighting of genus bookshop was an auspicious start considering I’d resolved to go cold turkey for this family trip to India. Travelling with youngsters meant concessions must be made. There just wouldn’t be time for circuitous journeys in search of bookshops. Consequently I had not compiled my usually extensive list of book locales at our intended destination.
Our holiday was necessarily organised and of manageable duration. We’d taken our cue from that little known 17th century travel advisor, Francis Bacon who remarked, “Travel, in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” Further salutary advice issued in Of Travel served as a blueprint for our journey. Just as Bacon championed the holiday diary, so too had Ali, presenting both children with a small diary in which to record their experiences along the way. As Bacon recommended, the ‘book’ “describing the country where he travelleth” – ours was the Eyewitness India Travel Guide – was packed and even while struggling to grasp the brevity of our 21st century travel itinerary, he would nonetheless be satisfied his requirement that one should, “not stay long in one city or town; more or less as the place deserveth, but not long”, would indeed be met. And of his suggestions for “the things to be seen and observed”, our seven day Golden Triangle Tour: New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra encompassed a fair proportion: “the walls and fortifications of cities and towns”, “antiquities and ruins”, “treasuries of jewels and robes; cabinets and rarities”. As well as all this seeing and observing we would also be doing: an elephant ride to the Amber Palace and a cycle rickshaw ride through the snaking streets of Old Delhi.
But as Sanjeev, our driver – although automotive contortionist is perhaps a more apt description of the driver’s art in India – manoeuvred the mini-bus through the interstices of an incessant traffic flow, both Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu and my pre-departure resolve evaporated. Hadn’t Bacon said something about seeing bookshops? Of course encased in our tour cocoon the opportunities for breakout were limited, but on New Year’s Day our last day in New Delhi – the tour officially over – suitably armed with city map and directions to New Ashok Nagar, the nearest station, we took ourselves to town. Eight stops later the Delhi Metro disgorged us and a steady stream of other New Year’s Day travellers at Barakhamba Road. Trusting our map and Ali’s innate sense of direction, the numerous offers of ‘help’ by persistent navigational salesmen were politely rebuffed as we headed towards Connaught Place. Our walk, however, proved further than anticipated and in retrospect we probably should have got off the metro one stop later at Rajiv Chowk, the Inner Circle of Connaught Place. Wishing us a “Happy New Year”, a passing New Delhiite stopped and asked where we were headed. Mindful of our limited time his offer to hail us a tuk tuk was now gratefully accepted. An hour later with various purchases made – some obligatory, others not – and gaining precious extra minutes on three wheels rather than two feet, I asked the driver to take me to a bookshop. Looking utterly bemused and perhaps fearing he had somehow misheard me, he queried “you want to go to a bookshop Madam?” A firm but friendly, “absolutely, yes please” left him in no doubt about my intentions. Once again, like The Taxi that Hurried he whisked us away, propelling his tidy little yellow and green tuk tuk through the crowded streets. We were jiggled and jerked on its only seat until suddenly he stopped and we tumbled out. From across the road I spied the Jain Book Agency and after a seven day abstinence, hurried headlong towards it.
Climbing single file, the narrow staircase led us to a small room in bloom with books. Tending this literary garden were two gentlemen who greeted us warmly, “Namaste, Happy New Year” and somehow managed to make room for four more among this profusion of paper. I spent a happy half-hour surveying the shelves, eventually realising this tiny space was an annexe of the much larger shop two doors down. This was filled with all manner of books from Indian law, politics, and education to Indian railways. Finally, with only one book in hand – the 2014 New Delhi edition of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin with Indrajit Hazra – my family ushered me to the door.
Ali had set her sights on the Janpath Market. Unbeknown to me this perambulation would also lead to New Bookland. Perhaps just because it was New Year’s Day, this quirky circular bookshop, on the edge of the Janpath Market, wasn’t open when we arrived and its booksellers only just setting up as we were leaving, no matter a photograph would suffice. As we made our way back to the station I felt quietly content, recalling that Bacon had also encouraged travellers to see and observe “whatsoever is memorable in the places where they go”. And even though I’d glimpsed but a fraction of New Delhi’s bookshops and book markets those that I did see and observe were indeed memorable.
[i] Since returning home I can confirm, thanks to Mayank Austen Soofi’s 2013 article, The Old Delhi Dictionary, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, founded in 1939, does indeed stock English language books. Another lovely find was a December post from Glory to Ruins titled, The Urdu Charisma of Calligraphy, a conversation between the author and Khatib Mohammed Ghalib, owner of Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, about the dying art of Urdu calligraphy.
“But as it is in all great discoveries, a good library arrangement is not achieved at once, but is a slow growth through difficulties met and conquered; some of the best portions of it will be those which have flashed across your mind when there seemed no pathway out of the thicket of difficulty in which you were struggling.”
B.R. Wheatley (August, 1878). Desultory Thoughts on the Arrangement of a Private Library. The Library Journal, Vol.III, No.6.
Some months ago the topography of our living-room altered momentarily although this time self-inflicted not seismic. Popping-in you would have been obliged to step gingerly lest you trip over or topple the piles of books dotting the living-room floor. Navigating safe passage to my small island of carpet – an excellent vantage point for surveying the now empty shelves – you might have asked “packing or unpacking?” Accustomed, as Christchurch residents have become to these antonymous queries – insured or uninsured? Damaged or undamaged? Repairable or unrepairable? Fazed or unfazed? – I would have struggled to give you an unequivocal reply. In the shaky days following February 22nd 2011 they accentuated the immediacy of our topsy-turvy life; now three years on their black and white certainties skip deftly across the gully of stuck-ness in which many still languish. Seemingly I was in a twilight zone between packing and unpacking.
Most of my books, like undecided jurors, remain sequestered in the basement. They’ve been out for three years, naturally I’d expected them back sooner. When the ground beneath Christchurch convulsed at 12:51pm on February 22nd the hitherto harmonious coupling of shelf and wall was sorely tested. The book-laden shelves covering the south wall of our living-room were given short shrift, jostled forward on their plinth by an agitated concrete block wall. Just as in Watty Piper’s story The Little Engine that Could, when something small prevails despite an ostensibly impossible task, complete shelf collapse was averted by one little L-bracket holding on – “I think I can, I think I can” – long after the others had given up. While grateful that nearly four metres of shelving and several hundred books were not face down on the living room floor, surely there was a limit to the amount of shaking even one plucky little L-bracket could withstand. I’d read Howard’s End. A falling bookcase and shower of books was partly responsible for the death of an ailing Leonard Bast. A self-deputised rapid inspection was undertaken and the shelves summarily ‘red-stickered’ – unsafe – in engineering parlance. Over the next few days the books were duly evacuated. In the months following February 22nd legitimate EQC (Earthquake Commission) inspections were undertaken. The north wall of our living-room was indeed ‘munted’ – post-earthquake vernacular meaning ‘broken’ or ‘ruined’ – but, although impressive, the stepped cracking in the south wall behind the shelves was deemed cosmetic only. Brotherly brute-force and a masonry drill bit re-anchored the teetering shelves. Disappointingly, this wasn’t the green light to unpack the books. The ground, jelly-like continued to wobble – by mid-January 2013 the Christchurch Quake Map had mapped 11,000 quakes – while post-quake bureaucracy resembling over boiled toffee, had become impenetrable.
For a self-described accumulator of books the empty expanse of shelving was at once dispiriting and thrilling. I remain hopelessly attached and attracted to the book as object and, although I endeavour to curb my book-buying to books I might actually read, there are some that have made it home on looks alone. It was an exuberant, abstract dust jacket – designed by Jacob Koster – cloaking Robin Muir’s 1960 novel, Word for Word that caught my eye and imagination, its apparent random daubs of colour reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Similarly, Ringdoves and Snakes – an account by British journalist Patience Gray, of her and sculptor Norman Mommens eleven months on the island of Naxos in the mid-1960s – I noticed when ferreting through a motley assortment of books in an out of town second-hand shop. It was purchased for the princely sum of fifty-cents on the strength of its intriguing jacket illustration and monotypes of Mommens marble carvings made while on Naxos.
For me the singular success of the book is its ability to befriend and bewitch in a way no e-reader can. I inevitably gravitate to someone’s bookshelves but have yet to feel any gravitational pull towards someone’s e-reader. Perhaps this is because e-readers are devoid of context, whereas books carry with them the imprint of previous readings and, as Alberto Manguel says in A History of Reading, we are influenced by envisaging them in another’s hands. I doubt I would ever have read Rupert Brooke’s poems had it not been for the look and feel of the leather bound volume that bore his gilt engraved signature. I found it thirty years ago in Smiths Bookshop. Equally compelling was ‘Jerusalem 1942’ written on the flyleaf; had a Kiwi soldier had found solace in these poems? Or perhaps they had been read in Jerusalem, the isolated settlement on the banks of the Whanganui River? There is, I suppose, a vulnerability and yet chutzpah about actual books on actual shelves and maybe that too is part of the appeal. Whether chosen, bestowed or requisite books stand, as presumably reliable witnesses, publicly declaring certain truths about our identity.
I have missed being surrounded by, and reminded by my books. Perhaps it is because, as essayist Charles Lamb said “I love to loose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.” And so, as their absence lengthened some have been retrieved from the basement. Now these books – mentally classified as BB (before basement) books – jostle for space among a disturbing increase in AB (after basement) books. Evidently I had not envisaged the actual shelf classification conundrum this now haphazard company of books would present. I am by character, as writer Anne Fadiman describes herself, in an essay, Marrying Libraries from her 1998 book Ex Libris, “a splitter”, my books segregated both by topic and location. A bookcase in the hallway holds History, Biography, Drama and Travel books, while attic shelves are home to Art, Architecture and Interior Design. Literature, shelved alphabetically, layer the living-room shelves with under plantings of Poetry, a small patch of favoured Children’s Literature and a flourishing bed of Books about Books. Now, as I contemplated the relandscaped living-room, it seemed proof that meticulousness in uncertain times would be counterproductive. A radical rethink of book arrangement was called for.
Feeling quietly confident I dug, from one of the twenty-two boxes in the basement, Professor Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Book Shelf. I knew the Professor – of both Civil Engineering and History at Duke University – had devoted the appendix of his book to addressing the vexing question of shelf arrangement. Titled Order, Order Professor Petroski proffers, in his words, “in no significant order, and without any claim of completeness or exhaustiveness” twenty-one options – each complemented by explanatory text – intended to whip even the most errant of book collections into shape. He categorises his options according to ‘public’- reasonably obvious upon casual inspection – and ‘private’ – requiring Holmesian prowess to recognise – “orderings” of books. Suggestions include; at No. 9 by “read/unread books”, No. 10 “by strict order of acquisition”, No.17 “according to new or used”, No. 19 “by sentimental value”. Number 21 looked promising, “by still more esoteric arrangements” ergo the book arranger is given carte blanche.
I had an idea; associative shelving. A bit smart-alecky? Maybe. But I’m always alert to and interested in finding connections – some obvious, others less so – between books on my shelves. By bringing certain books together I would create an arcane memory map of authorial, textual and contextual links. Unwilling to relinquish my alphabetisation crutches just yet, I began by gathering books and essays by a long favoured American author, Paul Auster. Alongside Auster I shelved J.M. Coetzee, who since 2002, has lived in Australia. The two authors met for the first time in 2008 at an Australian Literary Festival and, over a three-year period, began writing to each other. Broaching an array of topics that included philosophy and the financial crisis, through to musings on friendship, love and marriage, their letters were collected in Here & Now: Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee Letters 2008-2011. Now shelf-neighbours, I imagined them resuming those trans-Pacific conversations.
Before she could read her father’s books Anne Fadiman was building castles with them. Her essay, My Ancestral Castles, is an affectionate chronicle of a childhood literally immersed in books, Fadiman’s parents had around seven thousand between them. I felt certain she would delight in sharing shelf space with her late father Clifton Fadiman and her husband George Howe Colt. Resisting the urge to construct with rather than shelve these books, Ex Libris, Rereadings and At Large and At Small, now stand contentedly between Reading I’ve Liked and The Big House. Among my books were other writer’s accounts of their childhood reading and the books they love. Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built still hides in the basement, but I did have Into the Looking Glass Wood by Alberto Manguel. The first essay in this collection, A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood is, as the title suggests, Manguel’s adventures – beginning at age eight – in and out of Wonderland with the irrepressible Alice. Musing on the attachment he feels to the edition in which he first read a book, Manguel recalls in detail his illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland. As a child I read and now possess my mother’s copy of Alice in Wonderland. It, like Manguel’s, is illustrated by John Tenniel and has the same “thick creamy paper” he describes. And while his smelt “mysteriously of burnt wood” mine, lying cramped in the basement, would probably just smell musty. In Alice’s absence I pulled from one of the piles Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, another of Manguel’s favourites. He writes affectionately about Kim in A Reading Diary and although my Kim is not, as his is, from the 1914 Bombay edition I shelve it beside his books. I don’t think he would object.
It occurred to me – reading aloud aside – that although the act of reading itself is insular it is opposite in effect. There is no dichotomy between reading and life. Great books help to socialise us – some like an attentive parent, take us gently by the hand, while others thrust us unaccompanied into the world – but both broaden our understanding of it. Inevitably, my mysterious book assemblage, was less about forming a library and more to do with recalling the neighbourhoods I roamed as a reader. And, like all good neighbourhoods, there were always writers ready to share their reading wisdom. Alan Bennett and Julian Barnes, both keen-eyed observers of life, have introduced me to writers I was otherwise ignorant of. If not for Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I may never have stumbled across Denton Welch, and anyone who solemnly announces – at age seven – that “a flea would despise the amount of lemonade I’ve got Mother” must surely be essential reading. Similarly, after reading Julian Barnes essay The deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald, I felt rather embarrassed at not having read her work before and set about rectifying this with all the fervour of a new convert. The vulnerable and dispossessed inhabit Fitzgerald’s sublime novels so beside them I have placed Chronicle of the Unsung, by New Zealand writer Martin Edmond. I think she would approve.
Admittedly some of my book groupings did seem decidedly odd. For instance, I shelved Bookman’s Holiday by Holbrook Jackson, beside Long Ago in Rouen, written by my mother’s godmother, weaver Ida Lough (nee Withers) and No Ordinary Woman: Ria Bancroft Sculptor, because of a bookplate. Bookman’s Holiday, carries the bookplate of Canterbury artist and publisher Leo Bensemann. Bensemann, Aunty Ida and her close friend Ria Bancroft, were all members of The Group, formed in 1927, it was an alliance of like-minded and mutually supportive Christchurch artists. Likewise, American essayist and critic Sven Birkerts and exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky might seem an unlikely pairing until you read Birkerts book The Gutenberg Elegies in which he outlines the circumstances of their chance meeting and the subsequent impact Brodsky had on his writing life. Other book groupings were perhaps more obvious; who other than Ivan Turgenev – Andre Gide perhaps? – would Robert Dessaix wish to bump into on his shelf. Striding beside Iain Sinclair are Daniel Defoe and William Blake, while Terry Castle leans tentatively against Susan Sontag. And it is sheer mischief on my part that Salam Rushdie has Marianne Wiggins at his side.
I worked steadily and the floor was mostly clear of books when Ali returned home. Eager to show-off my newly ordered shelves I beckoned her into the living-room. She listened attentively to an animated explanation of my esoteric book arrangement and why certain books were now shelved together. Standing together surveying the shelves she wrapped an arm round me and said gently “they look great darling, what a lot of fun you’ve had with your books today”.
“What do you mean fun” I blustered. This had been hard work. But Ali was right of course, as mysterious as it might be, my book arrangement was also playful. It was dynamic rather than static, which in a way, succinctly sums up my relationship with books. I like to look at them, handle them, think about them, commune with them and sometimes even inhale their smell. Writer Duncan Fallowell has said “books are like oxygen”, and I agree, for me too they are a necessity, providing everyday sustenance for my soul.
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
Francis Bacon, Of Studies (1625)
It has become a talisman of sorts as I navigate the mutable landscape that is post-earthquake Christchurch. Journeys down Barbadoes Street are punctuated, at the Kilmore Street intersection by a quick glance to my right just to check, ‘It’ is still there. ‘It’, is the Book Fridge, officially known as the Think Differently Book Exchange, an early Gap Filler initiative. This capacious commercial fridge is due to celebrate its third birthday in July and lately I’ve been pondering its longevity amid the many and varied Gap Filler projects that have come and gone since 2011. Materialising on July 17 we were invited to fill it with books. Not just any books but books of a certain stature, books that had “changed your life and made you think differently.” An obsessive reader since childhood I imagined this book-filled fridge a literary Tardis. Akin to a Tardis, interiors of wonderful books are invariably larger than their exteriors, capable of transporting you, the occupant, to any moment in time anywhere in the universe. A shy and rather anxious child, books were a cocoon into which I could legitimately retreat from the social demands of everyday life. I curled up in rather than with books, they kept and still keep me, psychologically warm. Unfettered access to books was surely the elixir every Christchurch resident needed given the majority of the city’s libraries’ and better bookshops lay ruined, too risky or just inaccessible within the city cordon.
“We all know how reading has saved our lives”, Lydia Wevers writes in On Reading, “but usually only from the minor evils – boredom, weather, monotony, the beige death of thought, other kids.” But does it cut the mustard when faced with real misery Wevers asks, and people, as those in Christchurch did and many still do, “find themselves suddenly way beyond the borders of ordinary life.” Clearly, Wevers considers reading can and has mitigated real misery offering both personal and more widely known examples. Her mother read and re-read Jane Austen throughout the misery of WWII, crediting Austen’s books, her sanity saver. And what, Wevers wonders of Janet Frame’s fate had she not read? Her life seems to offer incontrovertible evidence of reading and writing salvaging and sustaining a life.
Of course real misery, like an insistent tongue, is endlessly demanding and oddly enough so too is the reading we do that will, according to Harold Bloom, “prepare ourselves for change.” So not unexpectedly, three weeks following the official opening of the Book Fridge, a despondent Coralie Winn (Gap Filler Co-founder & Director) noted, “the calibre of the books has dropped with there being (sic) a great deal of romantic fiction in the fridge which is disappointing but not unexpected.” Even the impeccable Robertson Davies, who considered reading an art and in an essay, A Call to the Clerisy, advised readers to “approach reading in a less passive and more interpretative spirit” also conceded; “the best, as every true reader knows, is not always what one wants; there are times when one does not feel equal to the demands of the best….very often one wants no more than ‘a good read’, to shut out the world while those bruises heal which the world has given.” But is the impulse to read enough or even summonable when wretched or wounded? Indeed Janet Frame read very little during her periods of hospitalisation at Sunnyside, Seacliff and Avondale – the Maudsley Hospital in London was possibly the exception. In Michael King’s vivid biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, he describes her carrying, “like a precious talisman”, but seldom reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, just turning the pages was enough. Perhaps in times of grown-up misery, it is not the actual reading that saves us but instead a memory of it. Mesmeric page turning then is the liminal moment when you leave a confounding adult world and return to the simplicity of childhood and the promise of books.
My mother read to me from an early age ignoring warnings from her mother-in-law that she would “turn that child’s head!” We celebrated her eighty-first birthday recently and although she reads very little now I asked about her once proclivity for reading. “Oh I loved reading and I read to you a lot” she enthused. Pausing briefly and looking slightly abashed she added, “I kept reading in the hope you would fall asleep.” So although my parents lived with nightly uncertainty – when a book failed to have the desired soporific effect my father would resort to pram pushing – my mother, was inculcating in me the certainty of books and the delights of reading.
The books I recall requesting frequently while still a listener to, rather than a reader of books, were those written and illustrated, by Racey Helps; Barnaby in Search of a House, published in 1948, and Little Tommy Purr, in 1954.
I still have Barnaby. He clings to life, his boards held together by a rubber band which acts as a rudimentary splint for his long-ago broken spine.
Although heavy with anthropomorphic sentimentality and written for, as Help’s said “the very young from four to about eight” the language is both rich and sophisticated – arguably difficult for the young listener or reader – for instance; ‘venerable’, ‘bole’, ‘predicament’, ‘doleful’, ‘stifled’. Whether or not they recognise or understand these words is immaterial, early exposure – written and aural – to adventurous writing counts. Author and literary critic Clifton Fadiman was quite right. In the introduction to Reading I’ve Liked he wrote, “long words tickle the fancy of children….they like the slight atmosphere of mystery distilled by a really bang-up polysyllable.” Fadiman was pretty impressed with children’s abilities to, on the one hand “read reams of careless prose with great enjoyment”, while on the other remain “sensitive to beautiful writing”. He wasn’t sure how they discerned the difference – maybe it’s that early exposure after all – but they did know and cited his son as a key example;
“My own son is not over fond of books. Rather than forgo an airplane flight he would willingly see the Forty-second Street library vanish in flames. Two years ago I tried the young barbarian – he was about seven – on The Wind in the Willows, and he could make nothing of it. I tried him again some few months ago. He finished it with absorbed calm, clapped the book to, and said with finality, “Now that’s what I call well written!” He has never said this about any other books he’s read, many of which he has “enjoyed” more. The fact is that The Wind in the Willows is the best-written book he has read so far, and somehow he knew it, though he had never been given any hint to affect his judgment.” (xvii-xviii)
Although Fadiman wrote this passage over seventy years ago, the moment I read it those year’s concertinaed and we were both nodding in parental agreement. I’d had a similar experience with my daughter. Always a keen listener to stories she nevertheless struggled as a beginning reader. Reading mileage, a lot of what they like and often – my partner’s a teacher – was prescribed. She’d loved the formulaic Rainbow Fairies series usually read aloud at bedtime. Interspersed with Rachel and Kirsty’s adventures were other tales; Dominic by William Steig, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child, The Improbable Cat by Allan Ahlberg and E.L. Konigsburg’s, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler. But for now Rainbow Fairies it was, only this time with roles reversed – she would proudly read chapters to me. During one of these, her-reading-me-listening sessions, she paused mid-sentence, sighed and said “this writing is quite boring Mama.” It had never been suggested that these books were inferior to any others she’d heard, but somehow she just knew.
I was born in 1961 so the childhood staple was writing by British authors; Beatrix Potter, A.A Milne, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Joyce Lankester Brisley, Kenneth Grahame, C.S Lewis and Malcom Saville among others. According to my mother I read independently from age six, was reasonably adept and seemed to enjoy it. The one nod to New Zealand on our family bookshelf – the connection decidedly tenuous as all the stories were set in Normandy! – was Long Ago in Rouen, a collection of eight children’s stories written in 1937 by my mother’s god-mother Ida Withers while she was working as a governess in France just prior to the Second World War. Although a fledging reader I much preferred these quirky tales to be read aloud. A particular favourite was Monsieur Corneille’s Crumple-Dumplet. The crotchety Roger Corneille has demanded a crumple-dumplet for his lunch nothing less will keep him alive. The successful and proud baker Jean-Pierre Tisserand can’t remember what a crumple-dumplet is – you can probably guess where this is headed – caught in the middle of this little French farce is Michel, the baker’s delivery boy. Michel is hoping to earn a louis (a gold coin in circulation between 1640 and 1793) so he can buy his mother a pair of leather shoes. Instead he earns the wrath of Roger Corneille and returns to the bakery day after day wearing the remnants of yet another pastry that is not a crumple-dumplet. Whimsical illustrations by Maggie Salcedo enriched each of these stories.
Books by American and Canadian authors came later – I adored Alcott and Coolidge but, much to my mother’s disappointment, disliked Montgomery – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time I discovered, courtesy of the school library, at age twelve. I didn’t give a hoot about where or from what century a writer came, whether well-known or unknown, it was the story that mattered. An equal opportunity reader I happily read most of my brother’s books; Just William, Biggles, Tintin and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators – I rather fancied myself as Bob Andrews, “somewhat studious and an excellent researcher.”
It seems to me I was given a good deal of latitude when it came to reading. I can’t recall being urged to read any of the ‘Classics’ but eventually found the Bronte’s, Austen and Dickens. During secondary school I developed a certain fondness for reading plays; Hedda Gabler, The Birthday Party, Waiting for Godot, The Miser, The Importance of Being Earnest, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Blood of the Lamb – I think this interest was largely due to an enlightened English teacher who took us to see these plays at the Court Theatre. In retrospect, I read for readings sake; in other words I read because I wanted to not because I had to, my mission; enjoyment not enquiry. Naturally as I got older the pendulum swung the other way and many books had to be read to pass a test, write an essay, or advance professionally. As Somerset Maugham wrote, “such books we read with resignation rather than with alacrity”. That we continue to read for enjoyment is the central thesis in Books and You. There are, Maugham advises, books that “will help you to live more fully”, but firstly they must interest you and secondly, enjoyment should be derived from reading them otherwise they will be of little use to you.
As I write I’m reminded of something I said to Ali during our trip to New York in 2011. This particular morning we had gone separate ways – her still in search of that elusive New York dress, me to McNally Jackson Books. When we met later she remained ‘dress-less’ while I had yet another bag of books. Ostensibly to cheer her up – though possibly to assuage sudden pangs of guilt – I pointed out our endeavours were not comparable noting, “it’s much easier for me I don’t have to try a book on I just know it’s going to fit.” Paradoxically, this is because I’ve been ‘trying-on’ books for years so I might read myself more fully alive. I’ve donned a variety of styles, at times struggled with fit, hoped I’d grow into some and tried to avoid the lure of trends. A great book is a microcosm of life; it demands your attention, presumes trust, can reward or disappoint. Reading deliberately is at once personal and participatory – you recognise and remember, imagine and interpret, discover and develop. Perhaps this is why a book-filled fridge, on the fringes of an inner city destroyed by earthquake, endures.