What Belongs to You

I’ve been a particularly neglectful blogger these last few months. I’ve been kept busy with my two jobs, which has also meant I’ve had more money coming into my account since before I went to librarian school, which has meant money to go out into the world and do things, buy books and see shows, and enjoy the extravagance of three meals a day. What luxury! As such, I’ve spent less time fishing for ideas for the free entertainment writing a blog provides, and consequently don’t have a list of ideas for what I might write about. This post is all about banging the keyboard and seeing what comes out. Are you ready to wing it with me?

Good, I’m glad! Thank you for taking a chance.

I’m turning over that old piece of advice, to “write about what you know.” When taken literally, I think this sounds well-suited to essay-writing and not a lot else. It’s a way to get from A to B, to make a specific point, to get a particular message across. Most of the time I write to either find out what I know, think or feel about something. For me it’s a good way to clarify abstract ideas and arrange them in a way that makes sense. In my student days, it was an effective way to learn about something. I figure I was given a year to write a thesis because that’s about how long it should take to learn enough about a very specific subject, clarify what your thoughts are on it, and arrange them in a way that makes sense. And sometimes, like right now, I write just because I want to, which seems as good a reason as any, and better than many.

The first piece I remember writing was a letter to Santa. The second was, quite literally, a work of Enid Blyton’s. I copied out an entire Noddy book, traced the cover, stapled the whole thing together down the middle, wrote “Written by Erin,” on the front, then proudly showed my dad. I was flummoxed when he changed the cover to say, “Rewritten by…” and argued fiercely that I technically HAD written the entire thing, so could he please tippex over his two letter alteration. He duly explained my faux pas, that copying out an entire text did not entitle one to claim authorship. Given that it had taken me all morning to hand-write, illustrate and bind an entire book, I was decidedly unimpressed: for my next written work, I had to ask the teacher how to spell “funeral.” (Not even kidding, although I suspect this had more to do with the fact I had just been to one rather than a desire to attend another.)

I wish I could say it was an important lesson in plagiarism, but I think what it shows is probably that I was trying to write the kind of thing I wanted to read. I don’t think my later attempt to write a book called The Famous Four had anyone fooled. The four in question were completely different to The Famous Five but did find themselves in all the same situations. They also sported an uncanny resemblance to my school friends: I certainly wasn’t clever enough to come up with a racially diverse group of friends and a Sri Lankan character named Ruvani. I felt like these characters were my own though, so I put them in and called it original.

There was only one character who ever found herself in even slightly un-Famous situations, and she was an amalgam of a real person, every Blyton story I had ever read, and my own childish desires. The character Becky was usually a long lost sister who went to boarding school, could play the violin, run fast, had a dog; someone who had abilities I wanted and qualities I lacked. The real Becky moved interstate when we were six, though I kept her character in my pocket, to take out and imagine into new situations, as and when required. Presumably I got a little more creative as I levelled up at school and stopped writing about her, but for a couple of years this imagined Becky and I went on wonderful adventures in my head. They usually began with us finding out we were actually sisters (having never had one myself,) and she’d take me to boarding school with her where we’d have all sorts of fun solving mysteries and getting up to mischief. We were looked after by an older girl named Susan, who now that I think about it was lifted in her entirety out of Narnia. I must’ve outgrown Becky by the time Harry Potter came along, otherwise I’m certain we would’ve gone to magic school together too.

Reading over that last paragraph, I realise that my own fictions were nearly identical to something Enid Blyton might punch out, but in imagining myself into them, they became something I could experience more fully than passive observation might allow. Although I hadn’t exactly come up with them on my own, these stories belonged to me now. Perhaps it taught me to be in the real world where my actual best friend had moved to the far off land of Warrnambool. At the end of the following year, New Best Friend moved to Japan. The next one changed schools after two years, and a year after that the next moved to Tamworth. A year later, I was the one who changed schools, and it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn I spent most of the first term in the library. It was much the easiest way to feel like I was somewhere familiar.

Reading has the wonderful capacity to take you somewhere completely different while feeling wonderfully at home. And writing puts you right in the thick of it, with more agency than you might otherwise find you have.

Is “write about what you know,” another way of saying, “write about your experiences,” or “write about what you wish would happen”? Maybe that’s what I’ve always done, and changing details is a way to spice things up rather than protect anonymity, which my uninventive naming clearly failed to do. But I think the greater purpose is to turn What I Know into What Belongs to Me. All of this probably belongs on the more appropriately labeled shelf Things I Think. But if I start writing a story, you can be sure the goal will be to end up with something I’d like to read. At this stage there’s a strong likelihood it’d be set in Cornwall and about a rabbit named God, so now that my desire to write something has been satisfied, I think I’d best get back to reading.


Why they pay me the big bucks.

In the last few months I’ve begun work at two new jobs: one at New Bookshop, the other in a public library. Now that I’ve settled in to both, I have to say I’m living the dream. I see all the new releases as soon as they hit the shelves, and can either borrow them from the library or buy them with my enviable staff discount. It’s pretty perfect. When I left Old Bookshop, one of my colleagues said, “You leaving this place is like you dying to me. But knowing you’re going to a library is knowing you’re going to heaven.” It was touching, really, in a backward kind of way, and I took it as such.

Nevertheless, I’ve found myself undertaking tasks I didn’t think were strictly in my job description. It’s probably not such a stretch to imagine one might end up running story time at the bookshop. When The Boss asked if my colleague or I would read a few picture books out to 2-5 year olds, I said nothing. My colleague responded with, “Erin, are you glaring at me because you want me to do it?” That was exactly why I was glaring at her, as she well knew, and so the task fell to her. But then, wouldn’t you know, she wasn’t actually going to be in attendance on the day, so the task fell a little further and I somewhat reluctantly caught it. She had already chosen the books, so I took them home to practise. I surprised myself by how seriously I took the task: I read them aloud to myself, trying out different voices as the stories required. I watched the part of You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan’s character reads aloud to the kids. If a professional actress can do it, how hard could it possibly be?

On arrival at the shop the morning of the big day, it became apparent that the book selections were a touch ambitious: none of the attendees fit the 2-5 year age bracket. The Boss asked which books I’d feel comfortable with for our younger audience.

“Well, since this week it’s 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out, why don’t I read that? I could do the illustrated edition. You know, for the kids.”
“You’d have to be able to read it upside down so the kids can see the pages.”
“I probably don’t even need to see the text. I think I know it well enough.”
“I know you do. But you’re not doing it. What was that one you were looking at yesterday, Things I Love About Me?”
“Oh yeah, I read through that but it didn’t turn out to be about me personally so I’m not sure.”
“Great, do that one. And what about Hairy Maclary?”
“I guess I could do Hairy Maclary.”

It was show time. I started with Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. One of the kids got up and walked off, which was mildly reassuring: no matter how I went, these kids were unlikely to even notice. They 100% could not tell the difference between me and a giraffe. The children then learnt about a few lovable things about me, including my eyes, nose, smile and toes. My kindness also rated a mention, which I felt was fitting given the circumstances. Hairy Maclary’s Bone was the hit of the day, and because a straggler toddled in right at the end, I grabbed another book off the shelf. In hindsight, Spot books are a bit long for toddlers whose attention spans the time it takes to say the word “truck,” but if there is ever a next time, I guess I’ll know for it. In the end we all survived, and none of us cried, not even me. Wonders will never cease.

Story time is one thing, but kid-related tasks are another ball game entirely at the library. Librarian school did not prepare me for slippery dip duty. Usually volunteers are given the job, but for unknown (although completely fathomable) reasons, they’ve been absent for several weeks in a row now. I’ve learnt to exercise what can only be called the patience and restraint of a saint, while supervising children who are noisy and disobedient. Not all of them are so bad, I should probably hasten to add, and I tell them they’re my favourites. I don’t know if there’s some rule about having favourite children in a library setting. If there is, I’ll circumvent it by saying I only have my least favourites.

Other than reminding myself that I’m there to do a job and am paid for my troubles, I keep my cool by telling myself it’s a very important job I’m doing. And I really do believe this part. If what I’m doing contributes, in one way or another, to introducing kids to books they’ll love, I’ve potentially seriously improved their lives. If it weren’t for these introductions when I was a wee lass, who knows what line of work I’d be in today? Possibly I’d be using my media & communications degree for something. But I did that for a while, and I think I probably had to in order to learn that actually I just really like books and am happier to make a career in bookshops and libraries than in an office. And possibly in the last week I’ve been reading to, and supervising the safe sliding of, the next generation of booksellers and librarians. Maybe they won’t remember a single word I’ve said, but maybe I’m helping foster a lifelong love of books and reading that will become one of the greatest joys of these little bairns’ lives.

I think I managed to impart at least some of the gravity of what it means to have a library card when I signed a little girl up the other day. I showed her and her progenitor how to use the self-checkout machines. She was visibly and audibly amazed at how it all appeared to work. When she asked, “how did you do that?” I told her it was with my magic librarian powers, that I’m actually a librician. The kid wasn’t falling for it, but as she left and her father told her to say thank you, she said, “thank you, librician.” I kinda hope that kid comes back and learns to love reading at least half as much as I do.

It’s a balancing act, for sure. It’s hard to remember these goals when a kid is wiping their snotty hands on me, jumping up and down while screaming “I’M A BUNNY RABBIT!” (I asked if she could be a quiet bunny rabbit and please save her hopping for later. She kept jumping and hit her head on the slide. I think I deserve a medal for keeping my laughter on the inside.) At these times, my goal is simply to make it out alive. In the words of J. K. Rowling, “Achievable goals: the first step to self-improvement.”

And that, my friends, is why they pay me the big bucks.

The Perks of Being a Bookseller

I’ve recently changed jobs, which is to say instead of selling books from a big shop in the city, I now sell books from a small shop in the suburbs. In name it’s the same position and utilises the same skill set, but a typical day in Old Bookshop looks quite different to a day in New Bookshop. I’m sure there’s good and bad to any job, however I’m in the quite fortuitous position of having liked my old job, liking my new job, and enjoying the perks that are part of the package.

It’s no secret that I like books; I’m following the wrong career path and writing a really incongruous blog otherwise. Books excite me. I chuckled smugly at my mother the other day because, being 30 years younger than she, there will be more new books published over the course of my remaining life expectancy than hers. It’s a ridiculous thing to feel smug over, because neither of us will live forever, and nearly the same amount of books will be published post-both-our-deaths. I’m all about taking the small victories where I can get them. Another of which is that I am privy to new books as soon as they are published, and now that I work for an independent, beforehand as well.

Before you ask (pointed glance towards my younger brother,) no I cannot get you a copy of The Winds of Winter. Not until the rest of the world can. Patience is a virtue I suggest you cultivate, as there’s no getting around that one, although I suppose you could try your hand at fan fiction if you’re getting really desperate. Anyway, my biggest problem right now is that my immediate To Be Read list is being overrun by queue-jumpers. I had my next four or five reads lined up, but every time I see an interesting title on the shelf of reading copies at work, I feel it my professional duty to dive in. Somewhere in my CV I’ve probably extolled my ability to manage competing priorities, and I think this is a genuine albeit very specific example of such. I could hardly contain my excitement when I discovered an advance copy of Sarah Winman’s yet-to-be-released Tin Man, and yet I had to until one of my colleagues was finished with it. Once I did get my greedy paws on it, I was prepared to cancel all plans until I finished it. I realised this would make me a crap friend and necessitate cancelling a lunch & ice skating date with a good mate whose birthday it was. Said mate understands this fine balancing act of time with people vs. time with books, and once our time-with-people requirements had been met, she and I sat in the back seat of the car, immersed in our own books, while another friend drove. Competing priorities managed.

But back to Tin Man. I’m reluctant to say much about it as I’m not sure of the protocol surrounding public announcements on something that is not publicly available until July 27, and I’m not a spokesperson for Sarah Winman, her publisher or any subsidiaries. Rest assured come the end of July, I’ll be singing specific praises atop every rooftop. In the meantime, I think it’s safe to tell you I loved the book and was heartbroken when it ended, mostly for the fact that it ended. I wanted to stay with it for a very long time, which is a solid indication that it will stay with me for similar duration. And I knew that this was the only time I could read it for the first time. I’ll read it again, and it will be the same and it will be different, or maybe it will be the same and I will be different, or perhaps the opposite is true. The first reading is done now either way and I’m chalking it up as a decisive win, man!

Free copies of brilliant books before the rest of the reading public are an obvious perk, and if you empathised with me through the previous paragraph, then you personally are another. Being around likeminded bookworms is another joy I hold dear to my heart. We don’t even have to have similar tastes (although it certainly helps) but if you like books, we will have a lot to talk about. I said exactly this to a girl I met on a bus tour around Europe earlier this year after I overheard her say, somewhere along a French motorway, she studied literature at uni. I was prepared to like her right away, and she and I had some brilliant conversations over the next month, and continue to do so from opposite sides of the world. Weeks later, in a bar in Prague, she told me how much she enjoyed witnessing a conversation between me and another girl, wherein I said I read 108 books in 2016, the other girl looked confused and asked “how?” and then I looked similarly confused because the answer seemed obvious. My whole trip was improved by the fact that I had identified an intelligent and bookish companion early on with whom I could discuss a whole world of ideas, including but not limited to what we had read. I still would’ve enjoyed my trip had my company been limited to those who respond to “I read a lot,” with “how,” but I wouldn’t have felt quite so enriched.

While I probably do spend more time reading than many of my well-read colleagues, at least I’m never met with confusion for it. I’ve been asked more than once if I’ve read everything, which as you can imagine strokes my already inflated ego, especially as it’s obviously so far from true or even possible. I’ll take the small victory once again though. I get a real kick out of talking books with these folk, the giving and receiving of personal recommendations, the lending and borrowing, and the disagreements we have over what constitutes a good book. I love that I can talk about my favourite things with some of my favourite people, and it’s all in a day’s work. Until a few weeks ago I worked with a particular chap with whom I’m also friends on GoodReads, and by glancing at each other’s profiles every now and then, literary discussions were generated without our even having to try. He’d hold up a book and say, “you’ve read this, haven’t you?” and away we’d go. Every few days I’d say, “what are you reading at the moment?” and that would see us through the rest of the day. Of course we did plenty of work besides, and it might take us several hours to exchange even a couple of sentences, but I found it reassuringly affirming to know I was in the right place with the right people. The funny thing is, he and I for the most part have pretty dissimilar literary tastes. And yet he reads my blog, I trust the recommendations he puts forth to me, and we’re never short on books to discuss. Which leads me to believe it’s not what we read that’s so important, or even why, it’s that we read at all that gives us (or at least me – I should not presume to speak for him or anyone else) this camaraderie and kinship. For me, our bookishness is my belonging, and another definite perk.

I’m super glad that working in a bookshop hasn’t ruined the act of visiting other bookshops for me, and I spent a lot of time hunting down bookshops and literary landmarks on my recent European sojourn. You could leave me in pretty much any city in the world and if I can find a bookshop or library, I’ll be happy, even if I don’t speak the language. Failing that, a café will do as I’ve always brought my own book with me. I’m a happy little bookseller, wherever I go. What’s more, my bookish travelling companion was happy to join me, and the one who didn’t understand how to read would charge on ahead, so I considered it another small win on both counts. I bet you don’t see accountants getting quite so excited to visit international accounting firms, or doctors with particular hospitals to include on holiday itineraries. Or maybe you do, but I bet they don’t look this excited. One might even say “perky.”

2016 Reading List

Last year seems rather a long time ago now, and given that it’s February, I suppose in a sense it is. I say “in a sense” because seven weeks in isn’t exactly quick off the mark for my first post of the year, but then again it’s all relative, and the last 30 years fall into the same “past” as my most recent sojourn. I was overseas from Christmas Day until February 9th, and managed to fit rather a lot in, with surprisingly little reading, and evidently even less writing. In due course I’m sure my adventures will make appearances in other posts, but for now you may have my annual book tally to scroll through.

And I think it’s a pretty impressive tally, if I do say so myself. My goal was 100: I was on track after six months, a little behind at nine, and made it comfortably in the end.

My pick of the year goes to We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and I knew within pages that this book and I would be friends. This was also one of the rare occasions I loved a book and felt confident my mother would too, so I forced it on her. And I was right; she did.

Honourable mentions go to The Mountain Shadow (Gregory David Roberts), A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson) and A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara.) Had I been on the judging panel for the Booker Prize, I would have awarded it to the latter rather than the verbose desert (that’s how dry I found it, and not the sarcastically comedic kind) A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James.) Another decisive letdown was The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery. I adore her first book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was disheartened by her second, Gourmet Rhapsody, and now fearfully suspect she’s a one-hit-wonder. I’ll probably read anything she puts her name to in the hope it’s even half as good as her debut, but my optimism will be cautious. As was my attitude towards The Return of the Young Prince (A. G. Roemmers), the sequel to The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery.) I worried that it would try, and fail, to be something it’s not, particularly as the original is such a formidable act to follow. The result was an absolutely charmless, trite and clichéd money-spinner that’s not worth the time to read and certainly not its RRP. At least I could console myself with the fact that I borrowed it from the library and wasted no money on my own copy.

I very much doubt I’ll read as many books this year as last, but am excited for some of the titles on my To Be Read list. Not to mention some upcoming publications; did you know Arundhati Roy has finally written another novel?? Get excited!! And please let me know if you’ve read any of the books on this list. It will give us something to talk about after you’ve tired of my travel anecdotes.

  1. The Amber Amulet – Craig Silvey
  2. The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
  3. Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes
  4. List of my Desires – Gregoire Delacourt
  5. The Mountain Shadow – Gregory David Roberts
  6. A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James
  7. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
  8. Rhubarb – Craig Silvey
  9. The Unauthorised Biography – Lemony Snicket
  10. Orphan #8 – Kim van Alkemade
  11. The Strange Library – Haruki Murakami
  12. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  13. The Girl in the Mirror – Lumi Winterson
  14. No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy
  15. After the Quake – Haruki Murakami
  16. The Mirror World of Melody Black – Gavin Extence
  17. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (reread)
  18. The Life of Elves – Muriel Barbery
  19. The Unbearable Lightness of Scones – Alexander McCall Smith
  20. Before She Met Me – Julian Barnes
  21. Lunatic Soup: Inside the Madness of Maximum Security – Andrew Fraser
  22. The Austere Academy – Lemony Snicket
  23. A Strangeness in my Mind – Orhan Pamuk
  24. How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
  25. The Midnight Watch – David Dyer
  26. Chance Developments – Alexander McCall Smith
  27. The Soldier’s Curse – Meg & Tom Keneally
  28. Gotham – Nick Earls
  29. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  30. Still Life with Woodpecker – Tom Robbins
  31. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  32. Brooklyn – Colm Toibin
  33. Contest – Matthew Reilly
  34. The Merciless – Danielle Vega
  35. The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett
  36. The Surgeon of Crowthorne – Simon Winchester
  37. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (reread)
  38. Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger – Fiona Wright
  39. The Truth According to Us – Annie Barrows
  40. Down Under – Bill Bryson
  41. Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
  42. Elsewhere – Gabrielle Zevin
  43. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions – Dan Ariely
  44. The New Life – Orhan Pamuk
  45. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  46. Unbearable Lightness – Portia de Rossi
  47. Penguin Bloom – Cameron Bloom
  48. Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination – J. K. Rowling
  49. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
  50. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
  51. The Ersatz Elevator – Lemony Snicket
  52. An Apple a Day – Emma Woolf
  53. The Music Lesson – Victor L. Wooten
  54. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
  55. Dubliners – James Joyce
  56. Wintergirls – Laurie Halse Anderson
  57. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
  58. The Wise Woman – Philippa Gregory
  59. The Mammoth Hunters – Jean M. Auel
  60. The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
  61. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman
  62. The Vile Village – Lemony Snicket
  63. Anne of Green Gables – L. M. Montgomery
  64. The Grownup – Gillian Flynn
  65. The Importance of Being Seven – Alexander McCall Smith
  66. Rope: A History of the Hanged – Amanda Howard
  67. Pieces of Sky – Trinity Doyle
  68. All the Light we Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  69. A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
  70. Nightmare in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  71. The Empathy Problem – Gavin Extence
  72. We are all Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
  73. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey (reread)
  74. Goodwood – Holly Throsby
  75. The Laying on of Hands – Alan Bennett
  76. The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides
  77. Hear the Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami
  78. Pinball, 1973 – Haruki Murakami
  79. Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin
  80. Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries – Helen Fielding
  81. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
  82. Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer – Andrea D. Lyon
  83. A Separate Peace – John Knowles
  84. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer
  85. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu – Joshua Hammer
  86. Tales from the Tower of London – Daniel Diehl & Mark P. Donnelly
  87. It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Ned Vizzini
  88. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  89. Public Library and other stories – Ali Smith
  90. The Return of the Young Prince – A. G. Roemmers
  91. This is How you Lose Her – Junot Diaz
  92. The Pause – John Larkin
  93. There But For The – Ali Smith
  94. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay – J. K. Rowling
  95. The Hostile Hospital – Lemony Snicket
  96. Hate List – Jennifer Brown
  97. The Spy – Paulo Coelho
  98. The Sellout – Paul Beatty
  99. Writers on Writing – edited by James Roberts, Barry Mitchell & Roger Zubrinich
  100. A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
  101. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman
  102. How to be Both – Ali Smith
  103. The Reader on the 6:27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
  104. Literary London – Eloise Millar & Sam Jordison
  105. The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History – Oliver Tearle
  106. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
  107. Mr. Palomar – Italo Calvino
  108. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Reader’s Block

Sometimes I just can’t read straight.

Most of the time this is because my glasses are smudgy or not on my face. Often it’s because I’ve stayed up reading past my bedtime and can barely keep my eyes open. Occasionally it’s because I have competing distractions or Big Thoughts that take up more than their share of my headspace. They’re greedy and inconsiderate, and right when I need to distract myself with a good book, the ability to do so escapes me. I lose all focus, which frustrates me even more. It seems like the worst thing in the world at the time but after a few days of replacing reading with Xbox and David Attenborough documentaries, my groove usually comes back of its own accord and normal services recommence along my 12-track mind.

Still, that period when I’m unable to read straight is a mild form of torture. Whatever problem that’s exhausting my mental capacity is made worse by my inability to lean on my favourite pastime. In trying to find a silver lining here, I suppose it reminds me that I have other interests that deserve attention occasionally, and sometimes I have to get a little creative to drag myself out of the funk by reading things I may not otherwise. Call it a useful exercise in diversification.

A few years ago I was in hospital with some broken bones, including multiple facial fractures. Hospital is a pretty boring place to be at the best of times (as though there’s ever a “best time” to be in hospital, even if you are only visiting) and the entertainment packages are non-existent. You’re not there for a holiday, after all, although they’re pretty cool with the BYOBook policy. Naturally I had my dear old mum bring me in a stack to wile away the hours, though these soon proved to be wildly ambitious. I couldn’t read more than a paragraph without immediately forgetting it. But hey, what did I expect? My short-term memory was shot. I couldn’t have told you what I had for breakfast. (With my faculties now restored, I can tell you with confidence that every meal I had for eight days was chocolate milk.)

Trying to remain optimistic, I lowered the bar a little. If I couldn’t handle a book, perhaps a magazine would do the trick. In hindsight I should probably have chosen something a little less demanding than National Geographic, and I was met with exactly the same problem. The pretty pictures did nothing to cheer me up and I burst into tears at the dawning realisation that I was in pain, bed-ridden and unable to read. It was a miserable state of affairs.

For all my shortcomings, I have to say I have exceptional taste in friends, and it was they who came to my rescue. I vaguely remember sobbing about my predicament when friends came to visit, and don’t recall suggesting or asking for a solution, since as far as I could see, I was doomed. But my good friends have passed a rigorous screening process, meaning they are all bookish, empathetic and resourceful. Completely independent of one another, two friends burnt an eclectic selection of audiobooks onto CDs for me, and unearthed discmen that probably hadn’t been of any use since the 90s but were perfect for right now. And their book choices were ever so thoughtful: from one of my favourites, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because it’s familiar and I love it, to Marian Keyes, because Milan Kundera is hard work even when you don’t have a head injury. And Harry Potter, because obviously.

And then Twitterature. This volume is an orange Popular Penguin full of classics condensed into fragments of 140 characters each, the maximum length of a Tweet. The giver of this gift (as well as discman and CDs) is an English teacher, and I’ve no doubt it pained her to buy it. Under ordinary circumstances, we would both have turned our noses up at such wanton butchery of literature. But they were desperate times, and it wasn’t until months later that I realised just how considerate the gift of this book was. I could still read the classics for which I yearned, and she obviously had a much more accurate grasp on my current abilities. I couldn’t read a book, or a magazine, or even a page, but she got me through those dark days 140 characters at a time. And when that became too much, when all I could do was lie there and wait to be drugged up once more to my swollen little eyes, there was always someone to read me a story.

In time I managed to muster the brainpower for a Sudoku. My mum went out and bought a book of them for me, and while a fair amount of cheating ensued, I got through the whole thing. I read trashy magazines then newspaper articles, poetry then short stories, novellas and then, finally, novels. I now feel like I should have read an encyclopaedia to illustrate some sort of full-circle metaphor, from Twitter to Britannica with everything in between. But I have a smartphone, which really does cover both.

And hey, here’s something neat: I started writing this post because I found myself in exactly the pickle I described at the beginning. Big Thoughts had taken over the reading part of my brain so I decided to start writing. An instance where I would quite literally rather be reading, but it just wasn’t working for me. And now that I’ve done something else for a little while instead, I think I might be able to get back to it. There’s nothing like a reminder of that time I almost died AND couldn’t read to put things in perspective. I’ve also had David Attenborough on in the background and do not wish to discount his contribution. Maybe a few hours of being unable to read isn’t the worst thing in the world after all. It has to be close, and certainly makes a bad situation worse, but I’ll probably survive it.

I think I’d better listen to a Harry Potter audiobook though, just to be safe. It’s just not worth the risk.

The Transience of Life: Lessons in Letting Go

We had a work experience student at the bookshop a little while ago. She seemed a nice, switched-on kid with the brightness of eye and bushiness of tail only visible in the young and uninitiated. She was eager to please and had, to her complete credit, a flair for visual merchandising. She put together an impressive display of Harry Potter memorabilia: there were towers of books with turrets of character figurines, a moat of mugs with a drawbridge of key rings… Ok I may have taken some creative liberties here, but you get the general idea. It looked great.

A little later on, I bore witness to the first death of a little piece of her soul. Some other task had taken her away from her display, and on her return half an hour or so later, the whole thing was a shambles. You could see that it had once been striking, but its former glory was a mere memory. We stood back and surveyed the damage. I reassured her that it still looked very good indeed but that there was no point in trying to resurrect it: you pick your battles, and she’d be fighting a losing one here. You turn your back for five minutes and this is what happens. She’d have to stand guard all day if she wanted to protect it from the hands of customers, and even though she wasn’t being paid for it, her time was more valuable than that. She accepted my observation, looking deflated and wan with her shoulders slumped as she let out a sigh.

“Think of it as a lesson in the transience of life,” I told her sagely.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means nothing lasts forever. Working in retail is one long process of letting go. Make sure you put that in your report.”

I’d like to think I came across as wise and philosophical, but that seems generous and unlikely when my deeper nature is far more cynical. Realising that her work experience had now taken a decidedly negative turn, I changed the subject.

“So do you know what you want to do after you finish school?”
“Yeah, I think I want to be an architect.”
“Oh that’s cool. Then your constructions might last a little longer than that display.”
“Uhhh yeah, I guess that’s the hope.”
“Don’t stress about it though, having to figure out your whole life after high school. I spent four years studying media & communications. That was years ago, and while I have no regrets, it’s only recently, at the age of 29, that I’ve figured out what I want to do when I grow up.”
“Sell books? And wow, I didn’t realise you were that old.”
“Thanks? And no, not sell books. I mean I like working here and all, but I’m studying to be a librarian.”
“Oh cool, what made you decide to do that?”
“I figured the best job in the world would be to sit in a room full of books and tell people to be quiet.”

In hindsight, I may have scared the poor girl a little. I don’t think she quite knew how to take my deadpan delivery. As an aside, let the record show that being a librarian is a little more involved than shushing people all day. I also believe libraries provide a vital service, and information and research opportunities should be available to anyone with enough curiosity to acquire a card. Libraries are a wonderful equaliser, and no matter who you are, just about all the world’s collective knowledge is available if you know where to look.

Additionally, there’s more to retail than learning to watch your efforts go unappreciated, although that’s a big part of it. I’m good at my job and nearly always polite and helpful to customers. At worst, I’m helpful without being rude. (Please don’t laugh too hard at this, especially if you’ve had to encounter me first thing in the morning at exam/Christmas time before I’ve had my bucket of coffee. Remember: I’m being paid to be nice to people at work.) Unfortunately, this is not a secret to customers, many of whom realise they can take their bad mood out on sales assistants and there’s not a whole lot that can be done in return. Or maybe I’m over-thinking it and they just don’t care.

Which is why, I think, it’s important to take the small victories where you can. My favourite part of my job as a bookseller is sending someone away with a book I just know they’ll love, even if I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them again to confirm it. It’s like I’m in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to find this person exactly what they need but didn’t know it. (For more on this, see this post.) And very occasionally, I get the feeling the customer knows this too. Maybe my enthusiasm towards particular titles is so obvious as to be catching, and of course it’s very possible that I’m attributing too much power to my humble recommendations, but it gets me through the day.

The other day I was in a bit of a funk at work for no particular reason. I probably hadn’t had enough coffee. But my shift was totally turned around by a customer telling me I obviously just love books and will make a great librarian, thanking me with sincere appreciation and then buying a book on my recommendation. I really hope she likes it. Obviously I think she will. I rode on that compliment for days.

So surviving in retail isn’t just about learning to let go, you have to figure out what to hold on to as well. Take whatever small victories you can get, and when someone yells that they’re never shopping here again, just think: you’ll never have to see them again and they’re probably miserable and don’t have as many friends as you anyway.

That’s it, that’s my optimism exhausted. And having said all this I will probably have lost all trace of it by the time the next customer loses their cool with me for not knowing which book they’re after when they don’t know the title, author or content except that it had a blue cover. But it’s nice to know that I held it for a time, and having let it go, it’s out there for someone else to pick up.

Here endeth the lesson.

So good it’s bad.

“I got this book at the tip. It won some award. I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” – My mother.

I’ve got to hand it to my old mum: she knows my taste in books. If there’s a book she doesn’t like, there’s a solid chance I’ll love it. I like to rebel against the matriarchy when it comes to matters of taste. As a general rule, she doesn’t like literary award winners, while I enjoy books that will make me look good if I die in the middle of it and it’s the last thing I can be judged on. In return, I’ve been known to tell her, “I hated this book. You’d loathe it.” Occasionally we fall in love with the same book and remember we are related after all, but these moments are few and far between.

The interesting thing, however, is that the books she doesn’t like that I love are often rather pretentious, while the ones I hate and she’d loathe are the most pretentious of the lot. There’s a line somewhere in the world of literary fiction where our tastes run parallel, and I usually know when I’m about to pass it and fall into a slightly verbose pit down which she would be reluctant to follow me. Some of my favourite books have a distinct air of wank about them: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, to name a few. I’ve even been told that loving Winnie the Pooh as much as I do is a fine illustration of my high-brow taste because it contains subtexts. However, with the exception of Pooh, I wouldn’t go recommending these books to just anyone and am aware they are not to everyone’s taste. In the case of The God of Small Things, I think it’s right on the cusp of well-written and pretentiously over-written. While I adore it, I can see why one mightn’t like it at all and find it boring. I certainly wouldn’t force it on my mum.

If a book has won a significant award, it’s just about a guarantee she won’t like it. That being said, it’s no sure thing that I’ll love it. As a professional bookworm, I like to have an educated and considered personal opinion on the books that are doing the rounds, and was looking forward to finding time to read last year’s Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I took it away on holidays with me, and thank goodness I brought another book along for the ride, as I spent the first hundred or so pages feeling like the esteemed philosopher Philomena Cunk:

“I found it boring, because I wasn’t sure whether it was boring because it was boring, or boring because it was good. Like how the theatre is good but totally boring.”

It seemed like a book I would enjoy. It’s a fictionalised retelling of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its aftermath, reaching as far as gang warfare in New York and the social implications on Jamaica in decades to come. Modern historical fiction meets social commentary meets true crime meets music. What’s not to like? Disappointingly for me, the kindest thing I have to say is, “I can see why it won the award.” It’s written from the perspectives of a huge array of characters, each with their own unique voice, history and style. I can’t fault James on his talent there. But it’s 900 odd pages with no story, and if I hadn’t had so much time on my hands, only one other book with me and the drive to give such an acclaimed book a fair go, I would’ve shut it forever and given it to my mother as an hilarious prank. It did teach me a valuable lesson though, which is that if I find myself relating to Philomena Cunk, the book is probably not for me.

It’s always tricky when a customer asks for a particular “good” book I quietly hate. I do my best to fight the natural urge to show off and say, “I’ve read that!” and when I fail, pray I’m not asked what I thought. An honest opinion is often appreciated though, and the other day I sent a high school student and her mother away with three classics I’m sure she’ll enjoy, and saved them from buying Jane Eyre, which the mum nearly bought because it seems like the kind of classic a teenage girl should read. I told her how I battled through every single page and struggled to stay awake, then hastily tried to backtrack and explain that obviously a lot of people would disagree with me; it’s a classic after all. Had she come in asking for a smart-people book named for the central female character, I could have easily and honestly extolled the virtues of Anna Karenina, but then that’s another one I suspect plenty of people snooze through.

A customer did buy The Unbearable Lightness of Being on my recommendation a week or two ago, after I told her, “It’s the sort of book that will make you feel smart and kind of dumb at the same time. You’ll feel as though you’re absorbing all this great writing, then worry that you wandered off for a second and missed something crucially brilliant and you just don’t get it. You’ll want to go back for more though.” She told me that was a great way to describe a book and she couldn’t wait to read it. I’m super good at my job when I pitch a book to the right audience, and get a lot of strange looks the rest of the time. But I think the above perfectly describes the kind of pretentious book I’ll love. Nobody wants to spend several hundred pages feeling like a dunce, but there’s nothing quite like rereading one of your favourites and coming away with something new.

I’ve scheduled in time for this year’s Booker Prize International winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and really hope I’ll like it. I could be setting myself up for another round of Cunk-esque moments of wonder, but at least this one is about a quarter of the length of last year’s victor. I think it’s worth pitting my professional curiosity and desire to seem well-informed against a few hundred pages of potential pretension, and if I hold my silence at the other end, you’ll know I missed something. Maybe this year everyone will be harping on about a genuinely good book, and not one we all want to think is good, but when it comes down to it is so good it’s bad.