When my eldest child was ten, he liked to read multiple books at once, arranged in a circle around him on his bed like a giant book buffet. He would pick one up, read a few pages, sometimes even just a paragraph or two, then put it down and move onto another.
As a serial monogamist when it came to books, I was horrified. For me, reading had always been an act of immersion. Surely, he was just skimming along the surface of these books, barely getting his mind wet. I remember asking his teacher if I should encourage him to focus on one book at a time, but she told me not to worry. He was making connections between the books, she said. He was building thousands of tiny bridges in his mind.
Eight years later, a friend asks me what I’m reading and I find myself admitting that, um, actually, I am reading four books at once.
In my defence, I am not myself. It is September 2020 in locked-down Melbourne and I am moving house, along with my husband, five teenagers, a cat and a turtle. Towers of boxes are blocking out the natural light. Bags of rubbish are piling up on the front porch, with no tip open within my 5km radius to take them. For reasons unknown, we have packed all the hairbrushes.
Even through the grainy video of our Zoom call, I can see my friend’s face reflecting back that same horror I had felt about my son’s reading.
Don’t worry, I assure her. I’ve got it under control.
I have a morning book, the kind of book that I want to read with fresh eyes: Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain.
I also have a night-time book, something unassuming and soothing, something to make me smile, despite my tired legs and aching arms, before I sleep: Emma Michelle’s Watching Cartoons with Boys.
And then I have an audio book, something lively to engage my mind during the endless hours of packing and cleaning: Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter.
And finally, I have a book on my Kindle to read in the middle of the night when I’m worrying about the state of the world and what to do with all that rubbish on the porch. Why, it only takes a chapter or two to create a little buffer between sleep and anxiety, I tell my friend.
What I don’t tell her, however, is that my Kindle book is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Nor do I admit that I’ve committed to reading it by the end of the month for the new online book group at work and that my eyes drift constantly to the ‘percentage read’ in the corner of my device. I feel like I’ve been reading the book for years and years and years, and yet, I’m only at 12 percent. While I have never held the physical book in my hands, I imagine it must be the size and weight of a large breeze block.
Also, it should be noted here: Atwood is no sleeping tablet.
After I finish my chat with my friend, I think of my son, weaving his thematic tapestry with his reading, his young mind supple, easily looping itself around one book and connecting it to another. My mind, in comparison, resembles the elastic in my oldest pair of knickers.
The truth is that there are times I don’t know which book I’m in, where it all starts to feel like soup. Alice Pung’s dating agency experience morphs with Emma Michelle’s bad boyfriends. A woman drives off a bridge in Atwood’s book and is found with her throat slashed in Riwoe’s.
And yet sometimes, I feel like a literary conductor. Pung is the wind section; Riwoe the strings; Michelle is the percussionist with the delightful novelty instruments; Atwood the grand piano. They are joined together in a single symphony where the refrain is human hunger. All their characters are hungry for something: for love, for home, for a sense of belonging, for actual food.
Moving day comes and goes. Kind neighbours accept extra bags of rubbish on bin day. Our cardboard box fortress is dismantled and reconstructed in our new home and I’m reunited with my hairbrush.
From the balcony of our new home, I can see the very same mobile phone tower referenced in Pung’s book. I look down at my hands, nails broken, skin dried from chemical cleaners and an inability to find those rubber gloves I bought, and I reflect on the grit and hunger of Australia’s goldfields, so vividly described in Riwoe’s book. As I shove the box of letters from ex-boyfriends deep inside the cupboard under the stairs, I think of a story from Watching Cartoons with Boys and feel grateful that my twenties are far behind me.
I’m still at the 12 percent mark of The Blind Assassin.
At a time when I am unable to stray more than 5km from my home, I realise my mind is free. It’s able to flit from book to book, from setting to setting, from life to life. The hard borders that I’d set up for my reading start to break down: I finish off Stone Sky Gold Mountain, my morning book, late at night. I wake early on a Sunday and reach for Watching Cartoons with Boys. The deadline for reading The Blind Assassin creeps closer and I feel my commitment to it stretch and then snap. I put my Kindle away in a drawer. It’s a book for another time, when I have a hard copy and can focus on the words not the percentage read. Also, I’m sleeping much better now that the garbage bags have gone.
I finish listening to His Father’s Daughter in my new kitchen, hands in the warm water of the sink, looking out onto the bright yellow daisies in our garden.
That night, I unpack my hefty TBR pile and place the books on the bright red shelves by the large window in my new room. My own book buffet, I think. Which book will I nibble upon tonight?
Imbi Neeme is a Melbourne-based writer of long and short fiction. Her novel The Spill won the 2019 Penguin Literary Prize and was published in June 2020.