We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. It was never noticeable. We weren’t the poor kids. And it wasn’t until recently that I realised how much my parents struggled under the weight of us. Since this, evidence of our economic status has presented itself, these tiny truths sealed in zip-lock bags, like the way I carried a tub of Vaseline in my school bag for chapped lips when all the other girls were out collecting Lip Smackers. My clothes were hand-made, or hand-me-down, and all my books came from the library.
I was then, and still am, a hungry reader. And though I had a collection of treasured favourites, the books I read were borrowed and returned every Thursday. This cyclic devouring became a ritual I’ve carried into adulthood. Books, I believed, should be consumed in a week. As a child this was achievable. But with work and tutoring and my own writing, the busier I became as an adult, the books I read diminished. Soon only works 100 pages in length could be finished before going off.
Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is 636 pages. Right now, this is what I’m reading.
Despite what they say, readers like a bit of math. We thrive on numeric goals. Benchmarks. The pressure of a deadline. Take the math behind 3000 Books as an example. With my seven-day turnaround, I was setting the same goal.
But in 2006 I realised university and study had spoiled my appetite for books and libraries. I’d become a fussy reader, sticking to my classics, detective fiction and splash of contemporary Australian. I started a merchandising job for a monster book chain and was told I could loan new books from the shelf.
In About Time, Bill Nighy’s character uses his powers of time travel to consume books. This is what I felt like being given all-access to the shelves of my bookstore. I wanted to make up on those years I had lost. That job was like my first trip to the buffet.
I wanted to read widely. To consume. To take risks. With time and money out of the equation, I could read guilt-free, bite into Oprah’s faves, memoirs of mountaineers, columns by callgirls, books with black dogs. I could go the long way down (or round) and find out, finally, why he just wasn’t that into me. And the fiction was voluminous. Sub-genre crime, Pulitzer winners, urban fantasy, YA. I discovered some of my favourite writers in those days. McCarthy, Ballard, Tropper, Lahiri, Chandler and Chabon. In 2010 I read 73 books. In 2011 my bookstore closed down.
What followed were the dry years. In 2012 and 2013 I fell into a chasm where the work was long and hard, the reading scarce, and my finances evaporated as my family slipped into a deep chaos. My bookstore wage was never exorbitant, but now I was crippled by both money and time, with nothing to read and no way to fund my habit.
For a while I kept up the pretence. In my circle I was the oracle. When it came to books, I knew what was hot or not. I had endless shelves my friends could borrow from. I was the final word on film adaptations. But I was slipping. Desperate, I grasped at the old life. We went on book saunters though the CBD independents. When we caught up over pancakes and wine, I lied about why I wasn’t reading. And even though friends offered me their cast-offs, I was starving.
In 2014 with a new job, I began clawing my way to recovery. But I was so far out from the centre I hardly knew where to start. All the bookshops have closed, my friends warned me. It’s culturally barren, they said. It’s a wasteland. But I already knew the answer.
I joined the library.
The library was better than I remembered. The books were still free, but technology had come a long way since rubber stamps at Dunwich State School. Online you could order things in, you could renew your holds. When you self-scanned your loans a print-out became a bookmark reminder of the books you had borrowed. PLR meant the authors were paid. I was still contributing to the economy, even if it was indirectly. The only problem that remained was what to read. I was so hungry I could hardly think straight.
Two things happened in those early days. I borrowed and read James Sallis’s The Long-Legged Fly, and my new colleague loaned me Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck.
In Sallis’s book about a philosophical assassin, I learned that if you can’t make a choice, just act. Action creates reaction, and a choice becomes necessary.
Ephron’s book presented me with a chapter on rapture. The screenwriter behind When Harry Met Sally was in rapture about reading. I’ve just surfaced from spending several days in a state of rapture—with a book, she wrote. I felt alive, and engaged, and positively brilliant, bursting with ideas, brimming with memories of other books I’ve loved.
The book that had her in raptures was Kavalier & Clay.
So I let Ephron lead me, and in doing so, I found that the books that I borrowed had their own lists too. These print-out receipts detailing loans by other library goers remained in the pages after the book was returned. It became a kind of treasure hunt. A secret promise of if you like, you’ll love. And I surrendered to the game of it.
Reading is so important to me, so necessary, that I have decided to ignore the numbers. My target shouldn’t be numerical. A seven day deadline is impossible, really. Instead I’ve decided to consume my height’s worth. This year I’ve read spines equalling 58 centimetres. Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, which appeared on a library docket, will add another six. Last night my book-loaning colleague texted me: Booker longlist? Challenge accepted.
There’s no shortage of lists, of stories, of challenges or goals. There will always be books and possibilities. I believe though, if I stop counting the days and the pages, and simply devour, then maybe, finally, I will be full.
Megan McGrath is an award-winning writer from Queensland. Her short work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Griffith REVIEW, Seizure and Tincture Journal, among others. She works for Brisbane Writers Festival and tutors at Queensland Writers Centre. Whale Station, her first novella, will be released in October.
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