Where were you when…

…and what were you reading?

Because I always enjoy a good over-share with customers at the bookshop where I work, I often find myself telling strangers extremely odd and incredibly irrelevant facts about myself. For example:

“Do you have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?”
“By Haruki Murakami? Yeah, that’s a great book.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Sure, I read it when I was in hospital in Tanzania.”
“What happened?”
“Well it’s kind of a weird story about a guy looking for a cat, and some of it takes place at the bottom of a well…”
“I meant in the hospital.”
“Oh, right. I had this nasty infection in my leg. The doctor wanted to marry me; it was pretty crazy. But the book was great, you’ll love it!”

He bought the book so I consider it a job well done, but then he probably would have anyway. It did get me musing, however, on the fact that I often think about significant events in terms of what I was reading, and vice versa. For instance, I immediately recall that I first read one of my favourite books (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera) after having my wisdom teeth out. For those of you who knew me then, you may remember that my face was approximately the size of Jupiter, so holding my head up at all was pretty impressive. And when Juan Antonio Samaranch announced “And the winner is… Sy-doh-ney!” I was reading The Birthday Kitten and The Boy who Wanted a Dog, both by Enid Blyton. I’ve been double-booking from a very young age.

Perhaps it shows what a self-centred individual I am that when someone mentions a particular book, my response is often something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, I remember reading that in high school. I had just had a fight with my boyfriend and needed something to cheer me up,” or that I like to name/place-drop: “Twilight was awful. I started reading it in Bolivia then gave it to this really excited chick in South Africa. Worst part of the trip, really, and that includes the stint in a dirty African hospital.”

Nevertheless, as I write this my mind calls forth the dates and locations that correspond to a great range of titles. I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia sitting on the green floral couch in our living room 20-something years ago, and didn’t finish it until the aforementioned trip around Africa. I picked up a copy that included all seven books in a secondhand shop in South Africa, then passed it on to an orphanage in Kenya. I read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, in its entirety, in the back room of an art shop I worked at. I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes curled up on the seat of a Greyhound bus. With several hours of the journey to go and nothing else to read, I turned back to page one and read it again. I read The Housekeeper + the Professor by Yoko Ogawa from cover to cover while waiting for an appointment with my hand surgeon, who was running very late. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick took as long as a return train trip from Penrith to Chatswood. See how my mind starts along a particular track (in this instance, books I read in one sitting) and just keeps going?

I’m scrolling through my book lists from the past few years to see what other patterns emerge, and a popular one to my mind is where I was walking while I was reading. If you asked me what year it was that I moved to Petersham, I’d really have to think about it, but could definitely tell you that while I lived there I walked around the oval with everything from Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear to On the Road by Kerouac. And I know I had definitely moved to Chatswood by the time I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I distinctly remember falling in a mud puddle at Beauchamp oval, and dirtying the book, bookmark and my clothes.

The first book I read after my grandma died was The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence, and the fact that I was able to concentrate enough to read it is testament to how good it is. It was much harder to get back into Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl, which I was halfway through when Cate died. I do not believe these two facts are related, but Ms Dunham has a lot to answer for if I’m wrong.

In years to come, I will remark that I was reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, and The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts, when Alan Rickman and David Bowie died. The Mountain Shadow is the sequel to Shantaram, which I took with me to England. When not being read, I wrapped it in a jumper and used it as a pillow. I got very annoyed when I discovered a copy in the crappy little hostel where Ellie and I stayed; I carried that book an awfully long way for it to already be there. And it wasn’t even my copy so I couldn’t just ditch it.

Thick or thin, my books have been with me through thick and thin. I don’t know how unusual it is to punctuate my life with references to books (there’s a pun in there somewhere) but it’s worked for me so far. The timeline of my life looks like a rather disorganised library catalogue, and the target readership for a particular book is not necessarily an accurate indication of my age when I read it. Any book can be a children’s book if the kid can read. And does the knowledge that I read Anna Karenina alongside The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as Winnie the Pooh give you any idea how old I was at the time? I am satisfied in allowing you the assumption I was as precocious a child as I am an unusual timekeeper.

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