There has never been a time in my life—not even when I was a homeless heroin addict dossing on a friend’s floor and sleeping all day only to rise and cross town to work on winter streets as a sex worker, no, not even then, because if I hadn’t had historical fiction and cyberpunk novels to get my head out of there, I wouldn’t have survived—when I haven’t had a few books beside my bed. But it is getting ridiculous now.
I have just gone and counted the pile on my bedside table. Fourteen books, all in the middle of being read. It’s not that I’m completely vacant of concentration, but my chances of bedtime reading are erratic, and in my persistent, simmering panic about mortality and atrophy and the inhibitions to my creativity of five years of parenthood so far, I am in haste to read everything in the world and so I’m grabbing at it all, quick, now, before I forget I want it. Thus, fourteen books, all with bookmarks at various depths.
There is a great fat anthology of ghost stories, from the op shop ($5), and one about a woman re-reading the Narnia books as an adult: I’m hoping that will warm me to them again in time for my son to discover the back of the wardrobe. I have The Two Kinds of Decay, a new-old one by Sarah Manguso, an American poet and nonfictioner whose book on memory and motherhood and her diary, Ongoingness, is a tiny marvel of meditation on what truly shapes the meaning of a life, and I have Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, about finding nature in the urbis of Birmingham.
In the stratum above that are two parenting books, the brilliant classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Just Tell Me What To Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, by Betsy Brown Braun. These wise and kindly books by middle-aged American Jewish ladies reassure me that my instinct is confirmed: just treat kids like actual humans and things will work better. I have a short history of Louis XIV and Marion Halligan’s oldish travelogue on medieval France and Spain, Cockles of the Heart.
Near the top of the pile is Candide by Voltaire, which I began re-reading in Geneva, the city of its creation, and now I’m on the last spritely pages of it. Oh, god, the delight of it, and the uncanny presaging of our risible times and the very pertinent question of whether to withdraw from the tumult and cultivate one’s garden?
I mean to read all these new important books about racism and feminism and technological change and Trump but I am weary and frightened by it all. I’m not feeling staunch enough. I have a small child and a partner who works in the area of climate change and I cannot afford that much more distress when I wake in the dark of the night. Next year I will be writing a book about distress. This year I am huddling down to cultivate my garden. Or limn my barrel. As a kid I always had a fantasy of a hermitic life in a barrel (like the philosopher Diogenes) and my barrel, in a Narnia-ish way, would be a large cosy one with a bunk bed and little shelves of books and a mini-bar. I’m secretly stocking my imaginary barrel, curling up in there, pulling the door closed.
Indeed, on the bedside pile there are three vintage children’s books. I pretend I’m buying them for when my son is older but they are of course for me, my collection of such things fills a Billy bookcase. I have a random Famous Five adventure (Have a Wonderful Time, in the doughy old red hardcover, sans jacket) and two fantasies of Scottish island coasts and meadowed rivers, The Drowners by a Gary Kilworth and The Witch’s Daughter, Nina Bawden. If I had my time again I’d come back as a medievalist or an expert in children’s literature. I’ve been collecting these old clever fictions, and books of myth and legend, and children’s verse, since I was a child myself. I read these stories, as I always have, for my inner self, which I awkwardly confess here, has always dwelled not in Australia, but Britain.
The last book on the pile is Nature Cure, by Richard Mabey, a depressed nature writer. He writes of East Anglia and marshes and maunderings and represents perhaps (maybe) my main preoccupation these days, my parallel life in which I live alone on some misty hillside in Wales. I love my life, don’t misunderstand, but during the day I frequently drift off to a grey, damp, green and magical land where moorlands stir with blusterous winds and I scale grey-gritted mountainsides or tramp joyfully through meadows alive with lark song. I know this is not very patriotic. I know it can come across a bit right-wing, even—an atavistic instinct for the colonial motherland. But I stir blusterously and sing like a lark in my heart when I visit those worlds in my mind, and books have always been the way in, and my shelves are rich and warm with children’s fantasy by Alan Garner and Penelope Lively and William Mayne and Penelope Farmer; with poetry by Gerald Manly Hopkins and Edward Thomas and Dylan Thomas; with novels by Henry Williamson and J. L. Carr and Jim Crace, Sarah Perry, Sarah Hall, Lucy Wood, Melissa Harrison, Patrick Holland, Adam Thorpe…
But most of all I’ve been obsessed lately with that muscular, meditative little genre of cultural nature and history writing personified by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin, Helen Macdonald, Phillip Marsden, Paul Kingsnorth and sundry contributors to Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project. I love their attentiveness, the ample encompassing of a world that can be both suprahuman and deeply personal, I love the images of shale-strewn hillsides and wild valleys one might fluently walk across and forests to roam without fear of lethal animals, the austere beauty of highlands and the rich luscious downs, and a deep magic I am entitled to enjoy, and the quiet I imagine there. It seems a safe, if not uncontentious, stimulating, wandering place for my mind to rest. I read these books, snug in my winter bed, dreaming of walking all night.
And I wonder if it’s a psychic response to what I read during the day, which has for a year been mostly environmental history and colonial history about Australia, for a book I am writing about the killing of New South Wales environmental officer Glen Turner in 2014. The story is, it seems to me, about a direct consequence of European settlement, that weird attempt to bring British meadows and woods to the arid continent of Australia, and how that worked out, and how someone like me has come to possess at once a profound love of her country (I am surprised at how many books, looking back at my reading history, are local), an uncertainty of her place in it, and an exile’s instinct of nostalgia for one that is not hers. I can only imagine that the Britain of my mind’s haven is a fair reflex, not to be disavowed; in writing my own book about Australia at the moment, I am working a way into inhabiting, but not of course possessing, this land I was born to live in.
Meanwhile, I have just counted: there are 243 more books on my shelf that await my attention.
Kate Holden is the author of In My Skin: A Memoir and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days. She contributes to The Saturday Paper and is writing a book for Black Ink.