What am I reading? It’s the sort of question that’s slightly terrifying. Reading is a personal business. And it’s revealing. Like choosing a new colour for the wall. Years of Alice dust blowing in the louvres had given my study a rather rusty red shading and I was thinking of painting it. In winter I got the green colour chart and after months tossing up between two greens, ‘Mountain Vapour’ and ‘Colombian Lichen’ (don’t you dream of a job naming paint?) I presented my much agonised-over choice to the young thing behind the counter, only to be met with an astonished look. ‘Are you sure? ‘Green Whimsey’ is what most people prefer at the moment. This one, it’s a bit, well, old.’
I put my shoulders back like my yoga teacher is always saying I should, to place my heart at the centre of my chest and be brave. I looked her in the eye and told her straight, ‘I like that one.’ When the job of mixing the tints was done she showed me the colour, marking the tin with a daub. ‘Well, it’s what you wanted,’ she said, now reconciled to the fact it was my choice. And I left feeling rather pleased. It was what I wanted.
Reading is like that. It’s a choice and you have to go for what you like. It’s the same with writing. And painting your study wall. There’s no point pretending you like something you don’t. It’s all time and it may as well be spent as you like.
I‘ve always been a reader, but as I’ve gotten older there are new factors that complicate reading. Glasses for one. The whole can’t see without them issue means ensuring at least three pairs somewhere within easy reach. And I’m just not that organised. It has killed impromptu reading in situations where I haven’t planned ahead: waiting for unpunctual friends at cafes or at the doctor’s, dentist’s, kids’ school or an airport pick up. In these situations and hundreds like them, when I have time and no glasses, I can get quite frustrated. So I’m learning to use these times to remember books I’ve liked, which may be why I’ve found myself of late reading books I’ve read before.
Beloved. How I struggled with that book decades ago. I was overwhelmed by the power of Morrison’s narrative, the slips and knots she sewed into time confused me, and Sethe and Baby Suggs and the sixty million they represented—I hardly knew how to react, what to do with the rush of feelings into my comfortable white world. I’ve re-read Beloved several times. Still in awe of Morrison’s power as a writer, in each read I find different pleasures.
This time Morrison’s voice—which is both matter of fact and hauntingly poetic in its attention to detail—seemed to whisper the story to me. I read it like it was told to me, and I had grown enough to take it in. Another significant book I revisited was The Warrior Woman: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Kingston, which I first read as a teenager after a friend’s suicide, strangely comforted by its many ghosts. Like the aptly named Sitting Ghost that explained the feelings I was experiencing better than any rational parent—who named them, rather plainly and uselessly for a seventeen year old, ‘guilt’ and ‘grief’. Surfacing by Margaret Attwood has resonated with me for years, like a recurring dream I plan on diving back into it, but it still waits for me to find the right space in which to do so.
While away I pick up new books. Sometimes I buy off prize lists, not always the latest ones. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t, but The Burial, Courtney Collins’ first novel, didn’t disappoint. I read it fast and greedily on a plane between Alice and Sydney and then again later. It was like a horse with a soft mouth, it turned on barely a pull. Talking of horses, I also read Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears’ 2012 novel and loved it. For all its dramatic darkness Mears’ novel shows such affection for and a knowledge of rural Australia in the early twentieth century, which creates an effect I think of as a kind of soft focus to the authorial lens, in turn making the pain at the novel’s heart more bearable.
I’d only just started Michelle de Kretsers Questions of Travel at the airport when I went to grab a coffee and my husband took it over (we are not a family that has much respect for who started a book first. A popular book is often being read in rotation). So out of my daughter’s collection I chose Isabel Allende’s latest, Maya’s Notebook, though I was a little afraid. The last book of hers I’d read was Inés of My Soul and I wasn’t in the mood for violence and colonial savagery. I live in Central Australia and sometimes it’s all too clear how behaving badly is hardly limited to the past, or colonisation to the Spanish conquistadors. As I was on holidays I wanted to be entertained and Maya’s Notebook is hardly a light read. But Allende deftly weaves in the story of political oppression and its flow-on effects into modern Chile in her more gritty than magical novel. I loved finding out about the customs and traditions held by locals in the Chilean island’s of Chiloe, where Maya is a fugitive, even if sometimes I felt the character’s interaction with her world was not what I would have expected. Maya was much more mature than any of my children at nineteen and none of them had lost the brain cells Maya had to years of addiction. She was uncannily together. But I took what pleased me from the novel. Like the shade of green in my study.
Sometimes I don’t think much of it. But I chose it and at different times in the day when the western light hits the room it is perfect. And that I think is the trick to not ever having a book waste one’s time. Because all of them give up something, form a memory and add to the rich texture of life.
Jo Dutton lives in Alice Springs on Arrernte country. Her latest novel, From Alice with Love, Allen & Unwin, follows Alicia’s journey as she establishes a remote school in an Aboriginal community in 2007, the year of the emergency intervention. She has published two other novels and numerous short stories. More about Jo can be found at jodutton.com.