Anne Enright hides her books in the basement.
‘Books are like knives,’ Enright says as she sits on her couch in County Wicklow, swatting away questions about her reading habits.
‘I don’t like people picking up my books and saying “what’s this like?” … People do nothing but boast about their books, nonstop … But I can’t. They are too personal. They are too much part of my machine.’
It is the only time in the interview that she turns away from the camera, her profile firm and still.
The image of books stowed below ground loops in my mind. Most of my books sit in a padlocked room in another state. These books—stacked in an assortment of boxes salvaged from the Errol Street IGA—are dog-eared and waiting.
I’m moving, again. And soon. It’ll be my eleventh move in a decade. I keep a spreadsheet detailing each address and length of tenancy. This desire to track each place of residence exists only out of administrative obligation. Whenever I renew my Working with Children Check, I must record every address I have resided in for the previous five years. This feels like a staggering sweep of time. Often the form can’t hold my list of ill-fitting share houses, fractured relationships, failed attempts at new careers, and the unremitting unease that shadowed my twenties.
My books, the ones that I have accumulated in the two-and-a-bit years since leaving Melbourne, are temporally housed in cardboard boxes that once held fruit. Cartoon oranges and mandarins smile goofily at me from every corner of the flat. These boxes are ruinous to my back whenever I attempt to lift them.
In the weeks leading up to my move, I read articles with titles like ‘How to Cull Your Book Collection’ and ‘My Book Cull: A loss of shelf esteem.’ Was it a resentful or impassioned reader who coined the phrase book cull? A selective slaughter. Deliberate violence at scale.
Despite planning otherwise, I keep all my books. I begin to fantasise about when they will all be reunited. I will gently bathe each cover with a moistened rag before towelling them dry. They will then be stacked on the carpet once again. Even my imagination can’t budget for enough bookshelves.
With toothbrush in hand, I am scrubbing the grout in my bathroom. I work diligently, stopping only to consider buying grout paint. I want nothing to delay the transfer of my bond.
As bleach stings my eyes, I listen to a podcast. The guest is a lauded writer. He has recently released a collection of essays, which have been informed by extensive interviews. He says in almost self-congratulatory manner: ‘My Mother told me that good listeners are always much more interesting than good speakers.’
I turn this phrase over in my mind as I scrub the toilet. It feels immediately and immensely true. But it also has a slightly ragged edge that my brain skitters around, unsettled.
The following morning, as I surface from sleep, I think: good readers are always much more interesting than good writers.
I’m not particularly good at either reading or writing. This is not from a lack of trying. No matter how conscientiously I apply myself, I inevitably end up doing both simultaneously. Reading a few lines, before writing a few lines. The results are always half-arsed. The process is completely unlike how I listen: my deafened body is achingly alert and attentive in every conversation. My focus as sharp as a knife’s edge.
I used to be a good reader. The sort who would hook legs over an armrest, until toes became prickled with pins and needles. The sort who would address books like friends, affectionately and on first name basis.
The more I want to improve my writing, the worse my reading becomes. I am selfish and self-absorbed. Utterly rude and impatient. I interrupt the narrator, constantly. Interjecting with my own frivolous observations and unearned opinions. Rarely do I listen. Rarer still do I finish books. My brain shudders and skips—easily, easily distracted.
I wonder if this is why Enright considers reading a private business? It is a shameful act, picking over sentences with sharpened claws.
But, then again, perhaps this is just misguided guesswork. I have no idea how Enright approaches a page that is either typeset or blank. The interviewer didn’t press Enright to explain her reading or writing process. She sets a clear boundary with a small, hard smile. Her desire for privacy appears to be in service to the process. A knowing that she doesn’t want to dilute. A reverence that refuses to be distilled via Zoom.
I imagine her basement flooded with stories. She stands on the top step before diving into the inky swirl. Hours later, she emerges waterlogged and serene.
Later, I read Enright’s ten rules for writing fiction. Rule number one: the first 12 years are the worst. Thank God, I think.
Enright’s sixth rule reproaches me. She flatly states: try to be accurate about stuff.
I should clarify that I regularly finish books. But it often takes months for me to reach the final page. Sometimes longer.
My copy of Anna Karenina sits in my parent’s lounge room, wedged on a shelf behind the TV. I have exactly ninety-seven pages to go.
‘I’m still reading it,’ I tell my parents whenever they go on decluttering sprees. I say this accurately despite having not touched the book in almost seventeen years.
‘The act of reading a story is often propelled by an anticipation of its ending. Sometimes we read the last page first, possibly as a way of bracing ourselves for the journey to come,’ writes Roanna Gonsalves. ‘At other times, we are so absorbed in the world of the story that we resist its closure, wanting to prolong the experience, to hear that textual music, for just a while longer.’
This passage features in Reading like an Australian Writer. As soon as I began the collection of essays, I knew that it would take me years to finish them. I read slowly, pen anchored in hand, mind racing. Even once every page is read, this book will not be finished with me. I hope.
Having done all the easy jobs around the flat, I finally begin to sort through my desk. I pull out the drawers and dump the contents into boxes. It will all be unpacked at my new flat. I should be more deliberate and discard the debris from old writing projects. But I don’t feel ready just yet. These projects, though published, hardly feel finished.
Enright rounds out her list of advice with a promise of sorts: ‘Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.’
Perhaps, in another ten years or so, I’ll feel loose enough, free enough, to finish writing all those things I have started. For now, I resist the closure.