I spend a lot of time in secondhand bookshops. If I ever embarked on a PhD thesis, I’d choose to write it on the forces that propel me into rummaging among old books. All the footnotes in the thesis would be of books I had found in secondhand bookshops over the years. I would also invent critical texts and authors, such as Alexandro James Miguel O’Halloran’s The Mysterious Events in the Bookshop on Igor-Stravinsky Place and WJ De Poot’s remarkable four-volume study of the invention of footnotes, not to mention Julie-Marie Pogle’s magisterial A Catalogue of Post-War Shelving in the Stacks of the Bodleian Librar. And, of course, the recent discovery in the scriptorium of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi of an anonymous fifteenth-century text – Index librorum probrorum de bibliotheca Dante Alighieri – that claims to list the more salacious books in the personal library of the author of the Commedia.
This is more fantastical than you may imagine. I’m no more capable of completing a PhD than I am of flying unassisted to the Moon.
When I’ve been penniless and faced with the choice of buying food or books, a choice I have faced more often than I care to remember, I have often chosen the books. In fact, when I took a couple of weeks holiday earlier this year, I blew most of my holiday food budget on secondhand books on the first day. This meant that for that first week of the holidays I lived entirely on a bunch of bananas, a jar of tahini and a packet of Saladas.
Still, it was an awesome bookshop, in which I found, among other things, two volumes of Gore Vidal’s essays, Mayakovsky’s play The Bedbug, Robert Jay Lifton’s analysis of Aum Shinrikyo, a recent edition of CP Cavafy’s collected poems, an omnibus of Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories, a 1935 hardback edition of a Rafael Sabatini novel that looked as though it had been buried in sand for 75 years where it was chewed by crabs and frequently drenched with saltwater, two novellas by Natalia Ginzburg, and a copy of Elizabeth Smart’s very strange By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
By the way, I discovered in one of the Vidal books that he claims to have invented the term term ‘bookchat’. Bookchat is what you get if you turn on Radio National and hear a conversation about literature. Bookchat takes even a great book of dissent and turns it into your favourite puppy dog. It’s still cute and cuddly even if it occasionally pees on the carpet. That’s part of its bookchatty charm.
The number of secondhand bookshops around the country has severely declined over the past decade, which means that we are losing a certain kind of space, something non-linear, eccentric, disruptive and local. Secondhand bookshops are characterised by idiosyncratic schematics of discovery and geographies of the particular. A Kindle is no substitute at all for these experiences, and in fact opens up vistas of paranoia and surveillance that it hurts my brain to think about. The Kindle is not an object for reading books; it is a tool of monitoring and surveillance. I was given a Kindle for my birthday a while back. I disconnected it from Amazon, loaded some music onto it and jammed it behind the headrest of my ute where it sat yelling out the songs of the great X-Ray-Spex album Germfree Adolescents til the screen cracked. If you think about it, Poly Styrene’s lyrics are the perfect speech for a Kindle.
When I was a teenager I would have done an awful lot for a moment in the presence of Poly Styrene. She was half-Somali, wore braces, sang about Woolies and plastic and the poisonous pressures on young women, and was very funny. She screamed ‘Identity! It’s a crisis, can’t you see?’ and I knew Poly was destined to be my best friend. When she died last year the wormhole that connected me to my alternative future where a newer, better, less pathetic and cooler me hangs out with Poly Styrene shut its door in my face and withered away.
You never hear X-Ray-Spex playing in a secondhand bookshop. If there’s any music playing it will always be a Mozart piano concerto or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This is an invariable rule of secondhand bookshops and I assume this is a requirement of the Used-Book Sellers Guild.
The truly great secondhand bookshop, like the great café, is difficult to find partly because in the mind of the obsessive secondhand bookshop dweller there is the map of an ideal bookshop. Like all such dwellers I have secretly dreamed of my own bookshop. It will be called The Weird Little Bookshop and situated in a crooked alleyway. X-Ray-Spex will be on the sound system (fuck the Used-Book Sellers Guild), and all my Overland blogs will be there hand-bound in snakeskin, the titles blocked in illuminated script. They will be priced at $20,000 each, but will really just be there for the ambience. Prices for other books will be scaled according to whether I like someone or not, and there will be no books for sale by celebrity chefs. I will also freelance from my bookshop as a private detective, dealing in mysterious stories as well as dusty tomes, and using my own secretly perfected quasi-Lacanian techniques of detection. I will be like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, but with less social skills and sans Watson.
Though one should not be too blase about the romance of being a gumshoe, even one that ironises Holmes and Lacan. Investigation is always the tracking and discovery of the past, a past that no-one really wants remembered, least of all the person asking about it. It is often also the re-description of an opaque and long-abandoned sadness, the beginning of a series of exhumations. And giving people what they say they want, what they say they have lost, always involves walking them slowly through a disaster area.
A great secondhand bookshop is like a rift opened up in the fabric of time and space. The cataloguing is often arbitrary and idiosyncratic, and the shelving somehow distorts space so that kilometers of bookshelves can apparently fit into a nook the size of your bedroom. The structure the secondhand bookshop most resembles is a labyrinth. A labyrinth and a maze are not the same thing by the way. The way into a labyrinth is also the way out. One progresses to the centre or to some end point, then reverses one’s steps. A maze is something more paranoid. It has no rationale except confusion and disorientation. Theseus sought the Minotaur in a maze, not a labyrinth. If it had been a labyrinth, he wouldn’t have needed a ball of string.
If you’ve ever been into IKEA, you’ve had a maze experience. In fact IKEA is like one of the circles of Hell that Dante forgot to write about. He should probably have put IKEA in the sixth circle instead of the City Of Dis. That would site it beneath the circles of Gluttony, Greed and Anger and just above Violence and Fraud.
By the way, if you want to know how to draw a labyrinth, here’s how:
I sometimes draw them in the sand on the beach at low tide. Don’t ask me why. It’s strangely satisfying though. I feel like a more timid version of Banksy. Or maybe I’m really just drawing bookshops.
A secondhand bookshop’s resemblance to a labyrinth is partly gainsaid by the fluid and arbitrary nature of its organisation. There is no standardised template for a secondhand bookshop the way there is for a public library. A secondhand bookshop is like a labyrinth with doorways set randomly in its walls.
Of course the structure that new bookshops most resemble is the supermarket. They are all depressingly similar, lit up like hospitals, stacked with bestsellers, with shiny and overpriced prize-winners printed on crap paper that is far too white. There’s a sense of a vicious competitiveness, as though each book is only too aware of its value as a statistical item, as a publisher’s adornment, whereas the old books in secondhand shops seem to be very comfortably hanging out together and care not if you buy them. Publishers have long since lost interest in them, and as the publishers’ interest evaporates, so the attention of the reader can be renewed. If there’s one thing that complicates book buying, writing and bookselling, it’s publishers and what they want, and how they perceive, construct and police literature.
But released from its imperative as a nascent bestseller, a secondhand book transforms into something else, chewing its way through time like termites under the bark of a tree. The secondhand book is the freed book, wandering round the world sowing god knows what seeds and leaving traces no-one can see. No-one can track a secondhand book the way that Amazon and Apple can track their digital books. A secondhand book can be resold, given away, borrowed or shared and these attributes, so long ignored, are exactly the things that make them worth seeking out. They become their own samizdats in a way, circulating in ways that the Kindle-marked text can never do. The economy of secondhand books is an invisible economy of ideas and strange, disruptive objects. The secondhand book, discovered in one of those happy fortuitous accidents that only occur in the bookshops where they live, describes a personal and political space that is free from surveillance and free from the dictates of the marketing of publishers. That discovery gives the person reading the chance to be a different kind of reader, a reader more intensely concerned with what he or she can find in the particular, local, arbitrary and contingent landscape of personal experience.