Life has brought me to Canberra for the winter, where I’ve assembled temporary office in the National Library of Australia. The main reading room has been refurbished in designer shades of orange and green, and the temperature is just cool enough to be slightly uncomfortable; that is, to prevent me from resting my head in my arms and napping the afternoons away.
In this strange bubble of a city, my local IGA sells the Quarterly Essay at the checkout. A young punk next to me on the bus to Belco buries her head in sex positive classic The Ethical Slut. I’ve been establishing new reading habits, but I’ve found myself implicated in a new reading culture as well.
On the bus to the library this morning I was reading that Emily Gould novel, Friendship, a novel I was prepared to enjoy despite the bad press but which is, in fact, terrible. The characters in this book natter about the internet and their moms with a particular strain of laconic North American patter that reminds me a lot of Douglas Coupland except they’re much less funny. And no-one is reading Coupland anymore. There are so many words in this book and yet so few interesting ideas. I will not finish it.
I’ve also been reading Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, a reissue of the author’s first novel. I enjoyed Zambreno’s more recent Heroines, a book-length essay on the so-called ‘mad wives’ of the Modernists, and this one shares similar concerns, exploring the construction of femininity and the gender politics of womanhood. Zambreno enunciates the rules of women’s dress in a way I’ve rarely encountered in literature, and it’s getting under my skin.
Partly it’s getting to me because of my own circumstances. I have under-packed for this trip, bringing only four outfits that have lost their original interest and now feel not quite right; too boring, too Melbourne, too much like old Emily, when I want to feel new. But then, when don’t our circumstances come to bear on what we read. Looking back on previous entries for this column, I was struck by how many writers assert their location, just as I have done. ‘I am on holiday…’ ‘I have just moved…’ This impulse feels necessary because reading doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in the realm of daily living; on buses, between episodes of The Good Wife, at the insistence of culture and the push of recommendations by friends.
As with my wardrobe, I was minimal with the number of books I took. I brought my ereader but have otherwise been relying on the goodwill of others. My housemate Cathy lent me her hardback of Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, an elegant mediation on swimming that explores the Canadian author’s years as a competitive athlete. I do not give much of a shit about swimming. But the power of nonfiction always lies in how a story is told, not in its subject, and Shapton makes her topic fascinating via a series of carefully sketched observations that touch upon boredom, desire and adolescence. Cathy herself is a very active reader. A particular quirk of hers is matching meals with her books. Last week I ran into her at a café on Bunda Street reading Raymond Chandler and eating a chicken salad sandwich.
This is my routine. I start at the library café in the morning, checking Facebook and my emails with a pot of tea, before heading to the main study room where I skirt the edges of the building, looking for a window spot. Sometimes I’m working on Seizure, sometimes I’m working on a paid job, sometimes I’m writing and researching for my own projects. But every time, I send through an order of books to look at, which I examine one by one at the end of the day.
The book collection here isn’t as boundless as I’d hoped. Missing my own copy of Eileen Myles’ essay collection The Importance of Being Iceland, I key it in the search bar to discover there’s no record held for her. Of the US poet Alice Notley’s 30+ books, the library holds just one (but it’s a good one). Disobedience won the 2002 International Griffin Poetry Prize, and is typeset with wonderfully obnoxious all-caps poem titles, such as ‘RITA, A RED ROSE, HATES HER CLOTHES’ and ‘THERE WAS ALSO VALIUM IN THE DRINK, PLACED THERE BY TWO OTHER PEOPLE’.
I am working my way through short story collections by Maria Takolander and Maxine Beneba Clarke, catching up on the prolific Jill Jones’ latest poetry collection The Beautiful Anxiety, and reading Raymond Carver for the first time. Ordering piles of books and flicking through them is the lo-fi equivalent of a many-tabbed web browser, and, as with the internet, I find myself glancing over pages until something in particular captures my eye.
That most profound something has come by way of a 1997 essay by Kathy Acker called ‘Writing, Identity and Copyright in the Net Age’. It was that word ‘Net’ which drew me in: I love reading about how the internet was prophesised in its early days. In this short but complicated essay, Acker describes how the literary industry was created around copyright, and how this could be expected to erode with the growth of the internet, and how, as she posits, this is no bad thing, since it forces writers to engage in the spirit of friendship rather than individualism.
‘Friendship’ she writes, ‘is always a political act, for it unites citizens into a polis.’ ‘Think, for a moment, with how much more energy one does something for a lover or for a close friend than when one acts only in the service of oneself’. Yes. Acker’s essay has provoked me to think about this impetus in my own writing; to imagine, with my poems and essays, a receptive other to whom I am speaking in a direct and intimate manner. I am hoping that through this I can extend beyond myself, and so, in some way, become useful.
Emily Stewart is commissioning editor of Seizure, and a poet whose recent work is published or forthcoming in Feminartsy, Filmme Fatales, Overland and The Age. Earlier this year she was a resident artist at the Arteles Creative Centre, Finland. Emily is a 2014 Wheeler Centre hot desk fellow. emilyvalentinestewart.com