We were a nomadic sort of family. Dad worked in a mysterious government department necessitating moving home, town, state, country on a more or less regular basis. Anyone who has grown up in that way knows how it feels. The new kid. Always the new kid. Unfamiliar streets to navigate, working out quickly who your friends for this place will be and checking under the house to see if previous tenants have left any treasure. As I got older, the moves became harder. New kid at school is one thing when you’re in grade two, and everyone is excited to meet you, in High School, it’s just terrifying.
The one constant thing, from place to place, house to house was the unpacking of books. First the bookcase – sometimes a real one, sometimes bricks and planks and once, in a posh area of Sydney, glory of glories, a whole wall in my bedroom of shelves. (Maybe my parents had designated me to the study. Who cares? A room for books is a room for books. I was living in my own library!) Then the tea chest with my name scrawled on the sides in art-line. Setting it down near a window and prising open the top. The familiar smell of dust and old paper… of books.
Sometimes I’d place them on the shelves in alphabetical order, sometimes by size. As a teenager there was a brief spell of sorting by spine colour, something from a magazine, it never worked for me. Once, in a long delicious torture, by the measure of my love. This last was problematic, not least because the books had to change order depending on mood. A comforting book one day can be too dull on another. A book full of justice and fire can read too harsh when the summer feels long, and all is right in your world.
I like to hold books. Ragged and marked, scribbled and spilled on. Worn soft covers bending and smooth in my hand. The heft of a bulky one, binding glue giving way in the middle, so you hold them just so. The thin ones who hide away, held tight by their corpulent companions and needing to be prised out with a careful finger, landing out on their skinny spine with a quiet exhalation of dust and whispered, Ah, you’ve got me! Read me slowly. There’s not much of me, but I can tell you things.
Then there’s the gradual process of turning a new book into an old one. Those creamy stiff pages and rigid spine, the sense of possibility. You know you don’t really have time to start reading and yet…and yet. A book can only be read the first time once, like a first kiss, a discovery. After that, having passed the test of friendship and avoided the discard pile, a place can be found on a shelf. Or under the bed. Creeping up the wall in a precarious tower, under the coffee table, beside the blue chair by the window. The ‘read again soon‘ ones, the ‘must remember that line‘ ones, the must tell Dianne about ones.
Someone told me there are people who only ever read a book once. Wouldn’t that be like finding a fantastically interesting person and only wanting to talk to them that one time? As if you could know all there was to know in one conversation? The same book is a thousand books on a thousand different days. The printed words may not have changed, but I have. My eyes see differently. The world has shifted on its axis. I am older, wiser sadder, happier than the first time we met. And still, they speak to me, chiding, testing, encouraging, challenging, and keeping me company as I wander through life.
I’ve heard of people who only read eBooks, have turned their backs on dust-collecting space-sucking paper versions. There are advantages even I can see. Portable, lightweight, able to be coiled in their hundreds (thousands even) on a single tiny device and so tidy. For me, though, even travelling, I prefer to cart around one or two of my unwieldy friends. I like seeing them on the bedside table in unfamiliar surroundings, to wake in the night and reach out in the dark for a light switch and my book, my companion. I’ll happily eschew a tidy house for one full of things, people, places and thoughts caught within paper cages, waiting.
Readers bring books to life. Words on paper mean nothing without somebody to read them, to interpret and discuss, argue and sigh over. Words alone are the lesser without books to contain them. To stand on the shelves waiting patiently to be rediscovered again and again.
I don’t have to move around anymore. I can stay in one place, put down roots and stand firm. But I am still the new kid, arranging my favourite books on my bedroom shelf and hoping for the best. Still safe in the knowledge that some friends will never desert me, and most of them live in books.
Leslie Thiele loves reading books and writing stories. Sometimes she gets mixed up and scribbles ideas in the margins. Her short fiction has been commended and shortlisted in various competitions, and sometimes they have even won! Leslie studies writing at Bunbury’s ECU campus and has learnt more there about a writers craft than she ever managed by herself. Her prize winning story, ‘Harbour Lights’, will be published in Joiner Bay and other stories, the anthology of the 2017 Margaret River Short Story Competition.