I’ve been finding elegant ways to procrastinate this year. Several months ago, I arranged my bookshelf according to read and unread. In a particularly sociopathic gesture, I grouped the read books by colour. A surprising number of covers are bright orange, even if you discount all the popular Penguins. The unread books huddle at the top of the bookshelf, waiting to be chosen. I look around for a way to separate the two sections. The box containing my mother’s ashes fits perfectly. It marks the threshold between past and future. As the unread pile grows smaller on the shelf, the box shuffles towards the wall. One day, it will stop entirely.
There are books I’ve been lugging around for a decade. I used to work at a second-hand book store, the sort of job that people write syrupy memoirs about. It was run as a haphazard socialist co-operative. I wrote poems at the counter and read novels while pretending to alphabetise the fiction section. Old men who smelled strange would come in with piles of yellowed books, each painstakingly labelled with the abbreviated codes by which we knew them. One was called SIR. There was little else gentlemanly about him. We kept having to explain to the dealers that we were a university bookshop and, as such, nobody wanted a copy of Looking for Alibrandi. We had at least 14 copies of Looking for Alibrandi. When a non-dealer book had been on the shelves for a year without being sold or claimed, it became a shop book. We got shop books for free. I chose them out of aspiration (Teach Yourself Ancient Greek), titillation (Satyricon: a Journey Across the New Sexual Frontier) and sheer value for (no) money (Shantaram). Every time I move house, I consider donating them, but don’t. I’ll read them some day, I think. Now, I have no excuse.
I set myself rules: no re-reading old books, no matter how tenderly loved. The unread section must be prioritised. No buying anything new until these old paperbacks are all read. This, I think, will save me money. I break this rule almost immediately. I reframe. I can only buy books by queer women and writers of colour. I break this rule, too. Still, I whittle the pile.
I start lazily, with guilty reading. Somehow, I have come into possession of all of the Millennium books by Stieg Larsson. Surely, I think, anything that has been this much of a smash-hit must be good: hot with dumb pleasure, like The Da Vinci Code. Reading these books, though, feels like wading through porridge. The further I travel, the slower the pace. Larsson considered himself a feminist. His lead character deigns to bed older women, weird women, the ones other men pass over. Larsson describes Lisbeth Salander’s unfuckable body with revolted glee: her tattoos, her weird haircuts, her piercings. Other than her weight, he could be describing me.
I write in my diary, I think the grief has made me lose the ability to read. Then, my copy of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House arrives, and I cross out the entry. I read ravenously, excessively. The pages melt under my hungry fingers. I stay up late, sleep fitfully, reach for the book before my eyes are even open. I make my partner read it as soon as I’m done. He dreams that he is an abuser, and wakes pale and shaky, shrinking from my arms. I hold him against my chest and tell him that he is a good man. I realise that I have been picturing Machado’s abuser wearing the face of a woman I’ve met a few times, fleetingly. When her face pops up on Instagram, I shudder. I have never known her to be cruel. Probably she is sweet and kind. There is something about her face, though. Some sneer to her smile.
I read The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis, a book I escaped studying at school, and gasp out loud at the ending. I read Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs, and the poetry of her writing is so brutal and precise that it makes me cry. I read Three Novellas by D.H. Lawrence, and can’t help but notice that all his sexy, misunderstood heroes look just like him. I read Treatise on Modern Stimulants by Honoré de Balzac and laugh at his bombast. I read The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide by Antonella Gambotto, and her grief is a wielded weapon, with no room in it for pity. The day after, I can’t get out of bed. I am swamped with despair. My psychologist tells me to cut myself some slack.
I read about cutting. About self harm in the emergency department, and how dismissive staff are to the chronic self-mutilators who arrive dripping blood and shame. It is a heavy month of research. I read every piece of published legal material from the Geoffrey Rush defamation case, and marvel at how lawyers think that actors are magicians, not men. I read Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, and remember how fervently I believed, at 20, in the power of art to change minds through shock. I don’t believe it any more.
I read a coronial document that tries to explain to me why I have to speak to the police again, after all this time. There are so many words, saying so little.
I avoid the thick books. The Danzig Trilogy, What I Lived For, Midnight’s Children, Gone with the Wind. There will come a time when I cannot ignore them, but for now, I choose the slim volumes, the easy reads.
In March, before everything, I turned up at the Geelong North tip shop and asked to buy 150 books for an art project. I paid a dollar for each one, clearing the shelves as two women in their sixties peered between my arms in case I was taking anything good. I find one, months later, in my car footwell. It is called Tarab: Travels with My Guitar, by Carl Cleves, and it describes a life in motion. I remember the feeling of slow waking in foreign places, breaking the surface of sleep through a scum of jet lag, listening for the notes of a new world through the window. I remember the bright freedom of being elsewhere. I remember the other world, the possible world, the world before.
I read my own writing, day by day, the chapters of my book coalescing, the words gathering like ants to sugar. Each one starts messy. I pace the kitchen and tell my partner that the publisher is going to cancel my book deal for sure. A week later, hacked apart, scrubbed and shirt-tucked, I send them off to my editor and exhale relief when she responds.
I read Mimi Pond’s glorious visual novella, Over Easy. I read the sequel first, The Customer is Always Wrong, and now I meet characters I already know, fretting over the knowledge of what will happen to them. They have no idea of the pain that is coming. No idea, too, of the beauty.
I order Ellen van Neerven’s Throat from a local bookshop. When I turn up to collect it, bike helmeted and spattered with paint, the owner says, ‘I think this one is for you’. I open it clean. When I close it, it is bristling with folded corners and pencil marks.
I read an essay about a mortician who thought about killing himself. I read a Cheryl Strayed column where she tells a man that he will never know if he is ready for children. I read a Heather Havrilesky column where she tells a woman that having kids is the most glorious thing in the world. My Instagram ads shift from bed linen to baby clothes.
I re-read Ocean Vuong’s essay, ‘The Weight of Our Living’. I feel the ache that he always carves in my chest, the throb of his writing, like the wet smack of steak on gravel, like a flare at dusk.
I read the statement the young cop has prepared based on our interviews. We have only spoken over the phone. Somehow, I know that she is brunette. These are my words, stripped of character. Naked and awkward, crowded on the page. They seem cold. I resist the urge to clothe them, even a little. Yes, I say, this is the truth. Except, I say, you got her birthday wrong.
I watch the blue box move along the bookshelf, eating the new books, making them old. I wonder when I will be able to gather the people needed to scatter the ashes. By then, I think, all of these books will be read. I won’t need the box any more to divide them. I lift sandwiches of paper and gobble the little black words and then slide the remnants into the read shelves. Each one settles in between the spines that best match its colouring. They slot in so cleanly it seems like they were always there.
Sarah Walker is a Geelong-based essayist, critic and artist. Her debut essay collection, The first time I thought I was dying, will be published by UQP in 2021. You can find her online at sarahwalker.work