Fat and Fiction

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.

Bibliomat 2, Monkey's Paw books, Dundas Street W, Toronto, ON, Canada

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.

Dance o mat

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.

Ex Libris

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.”

Three Cities and a Bookshop

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].

SAMSUNG

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.

SAMSUNGClimbing 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. SAMSUNG

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.  SAMSUNGAs 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.

Shelf-indulgence

“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. Word for Word lying down

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.

Ringdoves

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.

Auster Coetzee books

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 AliceMusing 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.

Fadiman Manguel 2

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.

Bennett Barnes books

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.

Jackson, Lough, Bancroft, Defoe etc books

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.

Reading the Literary Fridge

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)

 

Image

Christchurch Book Fridge

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. 

Barnaby

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. 

Long Ago in Rouen Monsieur Corneilles's Crumple-Dumplet

Long Ago in Rouen
Monsieur Corneilles’s Crumple-Dumplet

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.

close up book fridge 2

 

 

 

 

 

Mulling over Melling

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual
allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the
scriptures, figurative.  John Keats

Architect Gerald Melling died in Wellington on December 22nd 2012.  News of his death reached me in a Kaikoura motel on January 5th by way of the Christchurch Press death notices.  An infrequent newspaper reader undoubtedly I had missed prominent earlier announcements.  This was a “Thoreau (more or less)” moment, described by writer Joe Bennett, as “if there is anything you need to know it will find you and the rest is fiddle-de-dee.”  Days and a different town later, clearly this was news I needed to know.  I read the notice aloud to Alison and felt as if I knew him, I didn’t.  What I knew and admired was a handful of Melling: Morse (he and Alan Morse had been in partnership since 1990) houses or “boxes” as Melling dubbed many of them; Music Box (1996), Skybox (2001),  Samuri (2004), Spilt Box (2006), Signal Box (2007).

Music Box

Music Box

Small (in footprint and budget) these are idiosyncratic rather than conformist little boxes made, not out of ticky-tacky, but from locally available sustainable materials[1].  To me they typify his long-held belief that architecture should serve many not just the well-heeled few.

Sky Box

Sky Box (2001)

I was also familiar with his journey to post-tsunami Sri Lanka fuelled by a desire to, in his words, do “more than merely rebuild”[2]. This culminated in the design of a village for a fishing community on Sri Lanka’s West Coast.  Melling wrote eloquently and honestly about this project in his 2010 book Tsunami Box[3] I live in post-earthquake Christchurch; is it fanciful to think we can and must do “more than merely rebuild?”  The adjective ‘strong’ has become part of the city’s lexicon over the last two years.   In the immediate aftermath ‘strong’ (Kia Kaha) was used to both describe Cantabrians and embolden the human spirit.  Places could not be characterised as ‘strong’, too many buildings had failed us.  But now, as our regenerative journey gathers momentum, attention has turned and description shifted to the creation of a ‘stronger’ place (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild).  It seems to me that Melling knew a thing or two about the ingredients required to create ‘strong’ places.  In a 1989 essay, The Mid-City Crisis, he bemoaned the dearth of new ‘strong places’ being created in the re-development of Wellington (and Auckland) saying;

“‘Strong places’, of course, make strong demands.  They require of town planning an intelligent strategy for urban strength; they ask of developers a strength of mind and moral purpose beyond the strength of the personal dollar; and – perhaps more significant than anything else – they need strong architects.  It is the latter who give the final stir to the urban porridge, and we must expect more than the odd flick of the wrist and a pinch of salt to titillate the palate.  We need architects with oats.”[4]

When asked in May 2011 for his thoughts on the Christchurch earthquakes, Melling, noting the considerable differences between the situation in Christchurch and that which he experienced in Sri Lanka, seemed prepared to wait and see given a local team, which included Ian Athfield, was involved.  Ironically some seven months after that interview our “architect with oats” had walked away[5].

Signal Box Night 1

Signal Box (2007)

But does any of this qualify as knowing the person I wonder; architecture as autobiography perhaps?  In 1929 Chapman-Taylor had this to say on the building of houses; “art cannot be commercialised nor come alive out of the mill of mass production.  Art is human and personal…..the man and his product must be taken together.”[6]  Some weeks later while perusing the shelves of poetry at our local library, my eye was drawn to a slender black volume protruding from the otherwise orderly row of books.  It almost seemed to be elbowing its way toward me.  Barely visible on its thin black spine was the title; Postcards from the Coast, by G J Melling.   While I had read some of Melling’s writing on architecture I didn’t know he was a poet; this find was as if I should know more about “the man and his product…” Encased between the black covers was construction of a different kind but nonetheless seemed intimately linked to the values and intentions expressed in his architecture.  What he is saying, I think, is that architecture cannot remain aloof isolated from everyday life; it needs to get out more.  Imagine a contagious architecture, anyone might catch it.


[1] Macrocarpa, an environmentally friendly timber grown in the Northland region was used extensively in the construction of The Music Box house.  See: Charleson, A. (1997). Case study. Timber Design Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp.10-11, and a 2010 paper by Neil Newman & Kerry Francis, Sustainable timber potential for Northland, New Zealand, presented at the 44th Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association.

[2] McCall, C. (2011). Gerald Melling: building on a feeling. The New Zealand Herald, May, 12, Auckland, New-Zealand.

[3] Melling, G.J. (2010). Tsunami Box, Freerange Press, Wellington.

[4] Melling, G.J. (1989). The Mid City Crisis & Other Essays, Thumbprint Press, Wellington.

[5] Athfield (2011). The challenge of Christchurch. Architecture NZ, Nov/Dec, No.6, pp. 18-21. See also: Diana Witchel Interview: Architect Ian Athfield, The New Zealand Listener, June 23, 2012.

[6] Chapman-Taylor, J.W. (1929). Some thoughts on the building of houses. In, New Dreamland Writing New Zealand Architecture (Jenkins, D.L. ed.), Random House, Auckland, pp. 68-77.

Bookshop Alchemy

This morning I closed the last page of 18 Bookshops, author Anne Scott was closing the door on the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St London. This slim volume is a paean to eighteen bookshops past and present all with literary or personal importance to the author. Reading these essays it occurs to me that Scott is also describing encounters with bookshop alchemy. Alchemy, according to Robertson Davies in his description of theatre alchemy is “something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been bought into contact with it.” Whether the late great Davies would countenance such comparison I’m uncertain. However, the following passage does indeed suggest a “glory, an expansion of life and understanding”, for Scott, who over the decades was “bought into contact with” Compendium Bookshop in Camden and importantly with bookseller Mike Hart.

“A fellow Scot named Mike Hart arrived to work at Compendium in 1982. On my visits across the next decade, he turned my reading to Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Alastair Gray’s Lanark, and a closer understanding of James Kennaway’s novels. These were all Scottish and easily bought at home: but at Compendium Mike would take a book in his hand, turn it over and think, then open it fast at a page, and read from it, so swift and clean and quiet that I heard the words straight from the writer’s mind, the pretences of paper and print exactly gone. A paragraph, a stanza, and he would finish, leave the book open at the place, and go away”.

The truly book obsessed will, I suspect, agree this happy alchemy is not experienced in every shop, new or used, claiming the status of ‘Bookshop’. Left to fossick to my heart’s content in a newly discovered bookshop my family is often bemused when I emerge moments later declaring miserably “It’s not a real bookshop!” Call me a literary snob if you must, I prefer idealist as I’m invariably on the lookout for the bookshop of my imagination. It is a mix of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret bookshop in New York City, and the long departed Marks & Co. in London.  Although I’ve yet to find this bookshop perhaps, as Seidenberg says, it is “hiding in plain sight”!

As one, among those described by Nicholas Basbanes as the Gently Mad, I unashamedly judge the merits of a particular location relative to whether there is a bookshop, preferably second-hand, within cooee. Pukerua Bay, at the southern end of the Kapiti Coast, is meritorious not because it’s the birthplace of Sir Peter Jackson but because it’s home to Archway Books. The shop sits unassumingly beside its vivacious neighbour; the ice-cream crowned Pukerua Bay Store. Archway’s books beckon quietly. Inside and you are beguiled with shelf after heaving shelf of used books. It also has a shelf marked ‘Books about Books’. Yes, a ‘real’ bookshop.
It seems fitting then that 18 Bookshops was purchased from another ‘real’ bookshop, Smith’s Books in Christchurch. The pop-up shop in the Tannery Emporium, on the corner of Garlands Road and Cumnor Terrace opened in November last year, twenty-one months after the February 22nd earthquake. I greeted owner Barry Hancox with a heartfelt “Thank God you’re back!”

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Although Smiths continued to trade on-line following the quake, I confessed I found little joy clicking on a one dimensional shelf lined with untouchable books. Writing in 2001, publisher and editor Jason Epstein agreed that although Internet booksellers and e-books would fundamentally alter book distribution less certain was how they would change retail bookselling. He pointed out that “a civilisation without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.”  In quake-hit Christchurch the unimaginable happened. Suddenly, either by destruction or decree the city was without Smiths Books, Liberty Books, Fortuna Books, Pacific Books, Scorpio Books and the London St Bookshop in Lyttleton. Lamenting a few broken and inaccessible book-shops seemed trifling; this time death accompanied destruction. I remembered a 1992 London Review of Books cover photograph, it had mesmerised me at the time and I’d seen it again recently in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. It shows three men perusing the shelves of the Holland House library in West London, badly damaged by a fire bomb in 1940.  Manguel’s description of this image now seemed particularly poignant.

From: A History of ReadingAlberto Manguel

From: A History of Reading
Alberto Manguel

“Through the torn roof can be seen ghostly buildings outside, and in the centre of the store is a heap of beams and crippled furniture.  But the shelves on the walls have held fast, and the books lined up along them seem unharmed.  Three men are standing amidst the rubble; one, as if hesitant about which book to choose, is apparently reading the titles on the spines; another, wearing glasses, is reaching for a volume; the third is reading, holding an open book in his hands.  They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction.  They are not choosing the books over life outside.  They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again – among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants – an understanding”.

Why did I feel the loss of these shops so acutely? If I needed a book surely Whitchoulls or Paper Plus would suffice? No. My book buying has always been more than just a market transaction, the book more than merchandise. It dawns on me that ‘real’ bookshops represent how I want to buy books. The atmosphere is different somehow; an egalitarian society of books where the long forgotten rub shoulders with today’s bright young things. I am not assailed by the latest publishing sensation or the ‘must read’ from this week’s celebrity book-club. I feel at home in these shops. A deliberate and pernickety book-selector I’m usually reading against the current as does the splendid Alan Bennett who, when asked about his preferred reading matter said; “If a book is all the rage I tend to wait until the heats gone off it before I read it. I don’t like to be in the forefront with books.” Here there are no remainder tables, no impression of beleaguered book-sellers hurrying unsold stock back to the publisher. The books wait quietly, (it’s they who choose you); their sellers’ patient, knowledgeable and generous. Many of them modern day alchemists pointing out paths to reading perfection.