Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door.
It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented.
Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library.
On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it.
What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves.
In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death.
I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing “how to” books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced.
Back on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again.
Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too.
What started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek.
“Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?”
Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous.
And he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest.
But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making.
I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me.
All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner.
Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing.
But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it.
The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire.
Image credit: Kelly Schott/Flickr