By Chloe Hooper
My call to action came via email: would I run the school fête’s bookstall? “I really hope so,” wrote the fête co-ordinator, “because we don’t have a back-up.” The parents who’d previously been in charge had all moved on. Having helped in previous years, I was the only one to understand the stall’s inner workings. I printed out signs and pinned them to the door of an empty classroom: “Book Donations. Please leave books HERE!”
Soon cardboard boxes and shopping bags piled up, all overflowing. It was disconcerting watching people’s relief as they parted with their books. Was I imagining this, or could they not get rid of them fast enough? Heaving rain was drenching the streets, yet one man filled his wheelbarrow with a library load, covering it with tarp and rope, so as not to miss this chance to donate.
The books, a trapping of privilege, seemed to make them feel trapped. These people were freeing themselves of good intentions and failed schemes, which I duly filed into fruit boxes labelled HOME/GARDENING, PHILOSOPHY, FITNESS. They were unburdening themselves of the guilt of never having read certain books. The brussels sprouts, the broccoli of their collections. A neighbour came in carrying a box laden with worthy titles. Catching sight of me, he gave a slight grimace. “We don’t have any of your books in here,” he said too quickly.
I hadn’t been able to part with anything from my own shelves. In every room, books were already imbalanced on every surface. And sorting through the school’s literary cast-offs, I kept adding to our house-of-cards aesthetic. Sometimes I’d feel sorry for a book I unpacked, imagining no one would ever want it. Then I’d have to take it home, pretending to myself it could come in useful. For instance, opening a diary of a 19-century Scottish fishwife – “My mother also gave a fishie to several mannies on the side of the road” – I told myself that if I ever took to writing about pre-industrial fishing, this would be invaluable …
Fête day arrived and a group of us created a shop-like configuration inside the classroom. On school desks was laid a treasure trove of books. There were jewel-toned children’s books in mint condition, but even better were those barnacled things that fell open on a past reader’s favourite passages: pages bursting with marginalia, the notes’ exclamation marks passing the baton to the next reader.
Customers arrived and it was thrilling when they found their book. We’d turned on an existential X-ray: instantly, something elemental about a person was made visible. I watched a child become overjoyed at finding a vintage pamphlet on obscure military costumes. A father, hoping to challenge his teenager, bought Das Kapital. A grandmother held tight to a rare local history about the country town where she lived. This was a haven for those who didn’t want to spend their time throwing Jaffas into a toilet bowl over at the Choc Toss stand.
Once each book and person found each other, both would be less lonely.
And yet, by mid-afternoon, I knew our stock was not moving in the way I’d hoped. Why, for instance, had no one bought the folio of penguin photographs? Or the book on da Vinci and spycraft? Where was everyone? From the classroom window, I could see the bar. Now the school community was divided for me into the readers and non-readers. As people stood drinking, laughing, enjoying a respite from the rain, I willed them to come to the bookstall. If they selected one of the many volumes in the PARENTING/SELF-HELP section, they mightn’t need to get tanked. Here, we had something special for all of them. I had to believe that.
For much of the year, I’d travelled around the country, visiting bookstores and writers’ festivals, promoting my own new book. Those with their beer cans glinting in the afternoon light didn’t have to think about the population’s changing reading habits, about print runs and publishing trends, and about how many trees had been cut down to publish their book which, before long, might end up languishing at this school’s fête.
Should I have been volunteering on the plant stall? I didn’t think so. In the end, as Hemingway put it, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” Looking around at all the yellowing “friendships” people had sloughed off, it occurred to me that those of us working this stall, all misfits ourselves, were safeguarding these titles until their next reader came along. Once each book and person found each other, both would be less lonely.
Before then, though, the rain was about to dunk us all again. The only way to calm down was to find a book and start reading.
Chloe Hooper’s latest book, Bedtime Story (Scribner Australia; $35), was published in May.