In 2009, when I was 22, I decided to move to Europe. I would spend a semester in the Czech Republic on exchange and then afterwards, I would be in Europe. The plan was to smoothly disappear into it.
All the moving around we did growing up (two countries, eight schools, one province, four states and a territory) had, for the most part, kept my possessions to a minimum. Books, though, were somehow exempt. The typical move would see me adding three boxes of books and one box of everything else to the moving pile. As an adult, visits to either parent’s house (wherever they happened to be living at the time) always involved the slow siphoning of books to wherever I was living.
And while I rarely re-read the books I was lugging from town to town (I just kind of liked the way they looked in my room) they were a wonderful constant in a life of transience. They were stable characters sat in unchanging storylines, familiar packets of atmosphere and imagery conjured by a simple glance at the cover.
In 2009, things were different. I was moving forever and this time my books could not come. At first tentatively and then with gusto, I began letting my friends go. I remember the appalled reactions of the people I knew, but also how unexpectedly easy it was—the incredible sense of liberation accompanying the reduction of all worldly possessions to one sixteen kg duffle bag. I held a great garage sale in my backyard, watched strangers pick through my Paul Jennings and Roald Dahl books—stories that helped raise me. I gave my most important books to the hand-picked friends I believed would enjoy them best; my Kurt Vonnegut books, my John Irvings—the two authors who made me into a writer—pressed into hands with great gravity and passionate explanation. My Amy Tan and my Paul Theroux books went to secondhand bookshops in Fitzroy, whose attendants accepted whatever wasn’t too tattered to resell. The rest I set on the counter of the Information Centre in the Student Union building where I worked. I put a sign on them that said ‘free to good home’, and watched the pile grow smaller throughout the day until they were finally, irrevocably gone.
Now, back in Australia and settled for the first time in my life, I have very few books in my house. We don’t even own a bookshelf—just a half-table leaning against the wall near the door, stacked with the Meanjins, Kill Your Darlingses, Dumbo Feathers, The Monthlys, Going Down Swingings and The Lifted Brows I have subscriptions to. In my shared studio in town are the poetry books I kept, mostly published by friends. Occasionally, on afternoons gone quiet, I’ll pick up Geoff Lemon or Sean Whelan or Josephine Rowe, flip to a random page and go back to those fraught or perfect moments they have held still in words.
I read in bits. Speed and Politics, Waleed Aly’s essay in Meanjin, has made me think differently about the effects that the integration of instant information has had on so many aspects of society. This line of his has stayed with me for weeks (and made me slow down a bit): ‘To be Busy—which is to say to live a life moving at such speed that you have no time—is now the same thing as being important. It’s a sign we’re worth something.’ FromKill Your Darlings, I still hold in my gut the bodily tension of ‘Tipping Point’, S.J. Finn’s short story. And Patrick Pittman’s article about my town, in the Perth issue of The Lifted Brow, still contains the best description I’ve ever found of it.
When I do read books, I am extremely picky. I will put a book down two thirds of the way through if the momentum falters. My attention span is shorter these days and my routines have changed. Though I’ve probably deprived myself of a number of perfectly good endings, I’ll still listen to a podcast while making chutney before settling down to read. So down goes Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Down goes Angry Young Spaceman by Jim Munroe. Down goes The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (though this one primarily due to its comparison with Tartt’s first book, The Secret History).
Which brings me to the great books—the ones that have held me captive. The Secret History is constructed from sentences so sparse and brilliant I often found myself copying them into my notebook. In The Secret History, you find out who killed who in the prologue; the rest of the book is a meditation on the preliminaries and internal consequences, treating a subject matter so often handled flippantly with considerable gravity and grace.
I listened to the audiobook of We Need to Talk About Kevin while doing dish shifts at X-Wray Café and it had such an emotional impact on me the effect was almost physical. I would come home dark and quiet, snap easily at my partner. The movie is overwrought and frantic, but the book worms its way deep into your psyche, where it does things difficult to explain away.
Anna Krien’s Night Games is the type of journalism Waleed Aly declared endangered with his essay. Krien immerses herself entirely in the world she’s writing about and hopes to emerge with a story on the other side. So much of Night Games makes me feel physically ill, but also armed.
These days, though it would be easy to keep them, I read my books and then quickly give them away. I own furniture now, I have clothes enough to fill three duffle bags, but I don’t keep my books. Maybe I don’t need their familiarity anymore, now that my surrounds have become solid. Perhaps, subconsciously, the keeping of books threatens a return to transience.
Zoe Barron is a freelance writer who writes all sorts of things for all sorts of people. She lives in Fremantle, WA and has a bit of a thing for bicycles. Also, a website.