Books, Self-Improvement

A Month Without Book Shopping

A few weeks ago, I announced my intention to take a break from acquiring new reading material in the month of November – no buying books, borrowing books, accepting free books… etc, etc. If you like, you can read my reasoning in full here, but it pretty much boiled down to me realising that I had become a book glutton, and being disappointed and embarrassed at how far removed this behaviour is from my attitude to materialism and consumption. I realised that acquiring books had become as important to me as reading and enjoying books, and that my rate of acquisition vastly outstripped my rate of reading and enjoying. So, this month has been about getting back in balance.

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a bookshop, so temptation to break my intention lurks around every corner. In fact, lurks is the wrong word. Temptation wears an oversized Spongebob Squarepants costume festooned with Christmas lights, and dances a polka while smoking a cigar and fondling itself inappropriately right in front of me all day long. Hard to miss. Going into this, I was expecting things to descend pretty rapidly into the detoxing scene in Trainspotting. You know, sweats and tears and dead babies on the ceiling. I was surprised to find, then, that I felt peace rather than deprivation.

My desire to buy came and went, and I found it surprisingly easy to sit with those feelings without acting upon them. I made a list throughout the month of books that I might want to revisit once the ban is over, and now that is it, there isn’t much I’m desperate to run out and buy. Once that initial, chemical propulsion towards a new object has exerted itself, there isn’t much left. The blush of new acquisition, and the pressure and guilt about my new possessions that usually followed it, were replaced by a sensation of calm. A feeling of spaciousness, expansiveness. My constant browsing was set aside and replaced with actual reading, and I was pleased to find myself able to pay greater attention to the book in my hand, not distracted by the pressure of what to read next. It was a fresh pleasure to pull long-neglected titles from my own bookshelves and make time for them, instead of constantly looking for something to own outside of my own collection.

Today, the 1st of December, I gave myself a free pass to buy any of the books on my list that I desired. I looked over it and found I didn’t really need any of them, nor did I want to go crazy with shopping right away. I wound up buying two titles – the new Gayle Forman (one of my favourite romance writers for teenagers), which was released in early November, and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (a recommendation from a friend). I was also tempted by The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, but I thought that the pre-Christmas rush probably wasn’t the best circumstance to enjoy an 800-page saga about subsistance farmers in medieval Greenland. Old me would’ve just bought it and put it aside for later (years later, probably), but post-November me left it on the shop’s shelf, knowing when I’m really ready to read it, it’ll be there waiting for me. Maybe in January, maybe not.

Given that I gained so much peace of mind from this experiment, I’m going to carry it on for the month of December. No new books. Easy peasy. In fact, because I was surprised about how easy I found it, I’ve decided to extend the challenge. No discretionary purchases at all until 2014. I’ve learned that I can live without new books, and in fact live better without new books, and I believe that I can also cope without new clothes, new ink for my fountain pen, new essential oil blends from Perfect Potion (my wallet’s achilles heel). I am enough in and of myself. I don’t need to buy stuff to increase my sense of worth, scratch an itch, cure my boredom, or bolster my self esteem. I am lucky to have so, so much already, and it is only by stemming the tide of new things that I can truly see and value how much I have. How liberating! I’m looking forward to it.


Christmas Picks for Grown Ups

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my Christmas picks for kids, and today, I’m sharing some of the best books for grown ups that I’ve read this year. 2013 has been a good year for my bookshelf, with some unexpected discoveries and some long-anticipated new releases. I’ll be sharing some of that good book lovin’ with my people this Christmas.


My first choice is a no brainer. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been my unchallenged favourite novel of all time since I first discovered it almost a decade ago, and several re-reads in the interim have only cemented its place at the top of the heap. It has actually been more than two decades now since The Secret History was released, and in that time new novels from Donna Tartt have been few (as of this year, two) and far between (one every ten years or so). You can imagine my anticipation, then, when an advanced reading copy of The Goldfinch found its way into my sweating palms. To give you some notion of what to expect (insofar as that is possible), The Goldfinch follows the trajectory of thirteen year old Theo Decker, who, in a daze after the explosion at the Met that kills his mother, smuggles a 15th century Dutch masterwork from the gallery, and embarks upon a decade-long struggle to comprehend what has happened to him, and where he is going. I’ll say no more of the plot – at nearly 800 pages, it’s a whopper of a book, and it is far, far more than the sum of its plot points – and focus instead upon the sheer pleasure of the reading experience. I can hardly articulate how immersed I was, how in love with every sentence, ever paragaph, every page. As in The Secret History, Tartt’s prose sparkles, and her uncanny knack for creating such ambiguity around her characters will have you following Theo down the rabbit hole and into the dark before you have any notion of how completely you are being led. The Goldfinch draws you down the well, into the vast underground caverns of the world and of the mind, and at its centre glows the painting, both an anchor and a mirage, “a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea (p. 602).” Do someone a great kindness and give them this book for Christmas (just make sure you read it yourself first).


This is another book I loved so much that I find it hard to talk about, but blogging is clearly not making me more articulate if I just keep saying, “I just can’t describe it!” and count that as writing, so I’ll give it a shot. This a book that is simultaneously about one thing – walking – and about everything – stories, adventures, poetry, history, art, science, mythologies, landscape, death, haunting, memory, memoir… It’s a tricky book to pin down. In terms of structure, The Old Ways is divided up into four parts – England, Scotland, Abroad (Israel, Spain and Tibet), and England again – each part covering a number of thematically themed walks in the given area. This is no travel guide, however, or, maybe it is a travel guide, but the terrain it maps is as much in the mind and the soul as the physical world. As he tramps, Macfarlane explores the relationship of path-forging to story-telling, and examines the almost occult effects of landscape on the psyche. This is travel writing, but it is also a very philosophical, esoteric book, filled with startling and strange ruminations on what it means to be a person moving through the world. With his keen eye for the terrain and vast curiosity about the history and mythology of the regions he explores, Macfarlane seems to perceive broader parameters for existence and for discerning meaning – his is a way of seeing, of knowing, that is utterly unlike anyone else’s. This book opens up the possibilities of sight, perception and movement, and it left me feeling as though I was experiencing the world through a different lens. The Old Ways is a truly unique and curious work, a treat for your soles and your soul.


This one is a bit of a hard sell for Christmas time. Not a lot of uplifting good news in the realm of returned servicemen and -women, and the treatment (or lack thereof) of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Next year, we’ll see the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and the publishing machine is already over-stuffing the shelves with new tomes on the subject. Of course, it’s important to know our history, to know what went before, but what David Finkel’s book asks us to do is to face what is happening right now, the shocking consequences of our current military conflicts, not only in terms of what they do to those of other nations but to our own people whom we send into harm’s way. Finkel’s depiction of these returning soldiers and the unbelievable challenges they and their families face is eye opening and heart breaking. From the peaceful privilege of my reading chair it’s impossible to imagine what these young people have experienced overseas, and what they continue to experience – emotional collapse, depression, unemployment, domestic violence, homelessness, suicide – as they come back to a system with inadequate services and inadequate comprehension of the issues they face. Finkel’s writing is superb and the depth of his personal and journalistic investigation impressive. This is such an important story, an uncomfortable story that is easier to overlook, but for the right person this will be a moving and eye-opening gift. (Let me add as a postscript that I followed up this book with The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a breathtakingly poetic and shocking novel about the Iraq war by an ex-serviceman. If fiction on this subject is more up your alley, I can’t recommend it strongly enough).

Mary Oliver(c) Dorothy Alexander  

If David Finkel is too dark for you, something by Mary Oliver might be more your pace. She’s been publishing poetry since the 1960s and already has a Pulitzer, so I’m pretty late to the party, but as someone who didn’t previously read poetry for pleasure her work has been a revelation. She does cop a bit of flak for being too accessible, for being a lowbrow poet, but I’m not such a snob that I care about that. New and Selected Poems Volume I opened me up, changed my way of thinking and seeing, forcing me to slow down, allowing my reading to become almost a form of meditation. Oliver invites you to observe nature, to recognise how alien and yet how familiar it is, and to feel your own self, equally unknowable, yearning to disperse back into the world. Like Macfarlane, she offers a different way of experiencing, of existing as a person in the world, and she grapples so gracefully with the anguish of being at once a part of the world and separate to it. One of my favourites, from a collection of the same name, 1978:

Sleeping In The Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

New and Selected Poems Volumes I and II are great introductions to her work. I also love the collections American Primitive, and Why I Wake Early. I don’t know so many people who buy poetry for themselves, but a well-chosen collection makes a beautiful and thought-provoking gift. You may even spawn another Mary Oliver disciple – god knows, one collection was all it took for me!

And there you have it, my Christmas recommendations. If you are a member of my family, spoiler alert, you might be getting one of these for Christmas – I hope I’ve sold them to you well enough!


Christmas Picks for Little Folk

I may not be buying any books for myself in November, but it’s getting to that time of year when I start thinking about Christmas gifts for family and friends, and my customers do too. As you’d expect, November always sees an increase of requests for recommendations at the shop, and I like to have an arsenal of excellent picks to draw on when someone asks. These are a few new and old books for little people that are floating my boat right now (and please, dear reader, while you’re shopping for littlies, dont be ashamed to have a read yourself. There are some truly outstanding writers working in this area that you would be remiss to pass over!).

charmed life dianawynnejones livesofchristopherchant

My first pick is anything and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I’m not going to limit this to a particular title, as she is enormously prolific and all of her novels that I have read have been equally engaging. Diana’s work was my big kids book discovery of the year. Of course, her books have been around forever (ok, since the 1970’s), but somehow as both a kid and as a children’s bookseller, I managed to miss out on reading her work. Until now. This year, I’ve devoured five or six of her many novels for young readers, and I’ve found myself in the presence of a true master of the form. The scope of her imagination was vast,  and her prose imbued with humour, the most vivid imagery, and a wicked pace that keeps you turning pages past bedtime. Most interesting to me, though, is that her young protagonists are capable of the truly nuanced insight that is so often missing in writing for children. Kids comprehend more than we adults realise, and Diana’s young heroes exemplify this startling awareness of the world of adult manipulations and schemes in a way that is utterly realistic and essential to the creation of a strong child protagonist. I also appreciate the generous number of talking cats that appear in her novels. You could safely pick up any of Diana’s books and be in for a magical time, but if you’re looking for a place to start, consider the books set in the Chrestomanci world (my favourite is The Lives of Christopher Chant), or Howl’s Moving Castle. Perfect for clever middle to upper primary readers, and grown ups who may have forgotten how to exercise their magical abilities.


Something for older readers, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This is going to turn into another gushing rhapsody, because I love Maggie Stiefvater even more than I love Diana Wynne Jones. Look out! Once again, you could safely pick up any of Maggie’s books and be in for a transformative read, but for this Christmas, I’ll be focusing on her newest series, The Raven Cycle, and its first book, The Raven Boys. Set in a small Virginia town, The Raven Boys proposes that ancient magic and dark power may lurk beneath the most apparently safe and suburban setting. Transposing Arthurian legends into a contemporary American setting may sound far-fetched, but Maggie pulls it off with her extensive knowledge of myth and folklore, and her ability to create truly three dimensional characters, in a truly three dimensional setting that seethes with fragmented familial bonds, imbedded class privilege, adolescent rage, and dangerous, magical possibilities. Also, lots of sexy filthy muscle cars. Are you hooked yet? If not, look only to her writing. No one, no one, writes so lyrically for teenagers as Maggie Stiefvater (in fact, just this week I had a customer say that since her daughter started reading Maggie’s work, her english marks had vastly improved. It’s even educational!). You’ll become so lost in her beautiful prose that you’ll be carried away and practically eaten by goblins before you know it. This one is definitely for the older readers, teenagers and up.

As a children’s bookseller, I always have an eye out for alphabet books that aren’t completely lame, and they can be few and far between. Alphabetical Sydney by Antonia Pesenti and Hilary Bell is pretty much, in my opinion, the ultimate ABC book – beautiful art, an interesting theme, enough text to keep the grown ups interested on the 20th read-through, and, as you’d hope, all twenty-six letters in their correct order. This is so much more than an alphabet primer, though. As a born and raised Sydneysider, I’m pleased to say that finally, finally a book for children has come along that really captures my city, from the dazzling harbour that is internationally renowned, to the mouldy terraces that most of us Inner Westies actually reside in. Cheeky, fun and affectionate in its treatment of the city, it has the jacarandas and the yum cha, the endless renovations and the bats. My very favourite page has to be P is for Parramatta Road, about a Sydney institution that will never make Lonely Planet’s list of must-see Sydney sights, but this smoggy, traffic-heavy artery and the sometimes frankly weird businesses that line it is a fact of life in Sydney, a constant and recognisable image that is no less a part of the city than Bondi Icebergs or the Manly ferry. This is the essence of Sydney, and a great gift for visitors and Sydney dwellers, big people and little people alike.


And finally, the sweetest, funniest, and most informative book I’ve read all year, Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather. The pigeon perspective is not given a lot of air time, and though I would gladly trade in all Australia’s pigeons for that other maligned urban pest, the grey squirrel (or a squirrel of any other colour – red, black, whatever – Australia’s delicate island ecosystem would be cursing my name, but you can’t deny the cuteness of squirrels), I do think pigeons are probably more switched on, particularly when it comes to the subtleties of the built environment, than we give them credit for. This wonderful book sets to out to argue nothing less, introducing readers to some of world’s most interesting architectural marvels as seen by the birds who dwell on and around their walls. To pigeons, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the Silver Squiggle (and isn’t it?), the Colosseum the Murder Ring, and, most fittingly, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is the Forest of Dreams. Educational but never dry, Architecture According to Pigeons will make you open your eyes to the city around you, and may even leave you feeling a little more tender towards those pesky grey birds. An interesting read for the 7-ish and up crowd.

With so many wonderful children’s books out there, War and Peace hardly stands a chance! We should occasionally read something grown up, though, so do come back in a couple of weeks’ time for my picks of the year for the big people in your life. My all-time favourite fiction writer has a new book out this Christmas, so it promises to be an epic, adjective-heavy post!

Books, Self-Improvement

November: A Moratorium on Book Acquisition

It’s time for me to make a confession. When it comes to book shopping, I have a bit of a problem.

There, I said it. No taking it back. The problem isn’t limited to shopping, either. As a bookseller, I also acquire advance reading copies or manuscripts from publishers, and books damaged or otherwise written off from the store, not to mention all the sharing that goes on among my colleagues and I. Bibliophilia is a common ailment (and not one that I think should be entirely cured!), but having spent pretty much my entire working life in either a bookstore or a publishing company, my case may be further advanced than those seen in the general population.

Firstly, let me clear the air and say that I believe my book habit is far more defensible than, say, cocaine, or even expensive shoes and handbags. Literature is the food of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional lives; without it, I’d rather not be here. I’m certainly not giving up my love of books and reading, but for the month of November, I am abstaining from the acquisition of new reading material. This means no purchases, no special orders, no reserved books, no loans, no free books, and no requests on Net Galley. I am permitted to write down titles I come across for consideration at a later date, but that’s it. I’ll be joined by a few bibliophile friends, so we can sweat it out together. Full disengagement from the library-building impulse.

Because that is what my book habit has become – an impulse. My desire for new reading matter far outstrips my capacity to read (although I will defend having a small home library of unread books to draw upon (small being the operative word here) – you never know what you might feel like picking up, and it’s a pleasure to peruse shelves that have been curated especially for your interests and tastes). Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about materialism, ownership, and the emotional investment we have in things, in novelty, and in the thrill of acquiring possessions, and I can recognise where my passion for literature and reading has tipped over into a passion for consuming books as objects, rather than as… well, books.

An interesting way of thinking of this is the notion of fantasy selves, put forward in an excellent post over on the blog Miss Minimalist. She proposes that much of our clutter accumulates as a way of creating fantasy identities – the unused treadmill for our fantasy trim and fit self, or the endless balls of yarn for the fantasy version of ourselves who ever finishes a knitting project. Many of the objects we acquire don’t serve us in any practical way, but they function to bolster identities and notions of self that are too flimsy to exist in reality.

I must clarify this by saying that, when it comes to books, fantasy me and reality me aren’t quite so far apart. Reading is my main hobby, and one that I dedicate an hour or more to each day. In order to keep up with my book shopping habit, though, I would need to give up my day job and read full time. Therein lies the fantasy! To get a sense of how far my fantasy-full-time-reader-self has departed from the realm of the real, I decided to do a quick count of all the unread books in my house. I have two bookcases dedicated to unread fiction, and keep unread non-fiction scattered about, loosely by topic, and not separate from non-fiction that I have read. Without rummaging through ever pile and every corner, I uncovered two hundred and seventy-nine books yet to be read (for the purposes of this count, I didn’t include reference volumes or other books one would be unlikely to read from cover to cover, like complete poetry collections). Two hundred and seventy-nine. I’m not sure if that’s more or fewer than I expected.

In any case, it is probably too many. Given that I read seventy or eighty books per year, on average (I keep a list going back to 2003, when I first entered the book industry, so I have the hard data to back this up!), I have no need to acquire any new books for several years to come. Of course, this is never practical for a reader, much less a bookseller – one’s interests constantly evolve and change, and new books that demand our attention are endlessly appearing on the horizon. However, there has to be balance between our limitless curiosity and the neverending publishing schedule, and our ability to grant real, undivided attention to the small number of books that really matter to us. Confronting the data like this, I wonder if it will have a deeper, longer-term impact on my approach to consuming literature? It’s probably too soon to say, and for now, I’m just focusing on taking November one day at a time.

The purpose of this month of abstinence is twofold. Firstly, the practical: to save a bit of money and catch up a bit on the backlog. Secondly, the spiritual: to spend some time acknowledging that what I have is adequate. I am adequate. Practice at being satisfied with what is, instead of constantly dreaming of what could be. I need to break the habit of incessant browsing, incessant lusting and desiring, and just exist.

I left the store after my final shift in October with the last of my purchases in hand – I’m on a Paris kick right now, as my last post will attest, and I purchased Cheri by Colette, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, and The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, by John Baxter. That should see me through the week, and get Paris out of my system. As I left the store, I had a moment of panic. Had I purchased everything my little heart could possibly desire before the lockdown set in? The lesson in that moment was that I had not, because what the heart desires is limitless. Of course, other resources, like time and money, are not so infinite. This project is designed to bring the heart back into alignment with the clock and the wallet.

Today, only one day in, I feel calm. I have nothing on hold at the shop, and nothing calling my attention but the book in front of me (actually, there are two – I’m reading Billy Collins’ poetry, and Baxter’s book about Paris). I’m sure the panic and the urge to acquire will set in over the next few weeks, and it will test me to calmly acknowledge that and set it aside. My hope is that this month will be a challenge and an opportunity to learn, to test my will and to align my actions with my values. Wish me luck, and for god’s sake, don’t recommend me any books!

Books, Writing

Muck Raking

I am reading pornography. It is filled with cinematic zooms, a voyeuristic eye that scopes out the most intimate of movements, sensations, declarations. No reaching hand or roving eye escapes its notice. It’s not quite as T&A as you might think though. It’s literary productivity porn. I give you Mason Currey’s excellent collection, Daily Rituals.


Who wakes early (Hemingway), who wakes really early (Murakami), and who never gets up at all (Proust). Who walks (Darwin), who dopes (Sartre), and who suffers for their art (pretty much everybody). It’s probably safe to say we’re all fascinated by how great artists work, the hope that in the details of the routine, in understanding the process, we might understand the work, or even hope to emulate it. The true pleasure of this book, though, is not in celebration of the output, but indulging the notion that your literary, artistic or musical greats might too be encumbered by the practice of everyday life. Combating noisy neighbours, allocating time to correspondence, making midnight phone calls, taking multiple daily walks, and smoking even more cigars are the stuff that great art is made of. Well that, and a few original and well-executed genius ideas.

One of my favourite parts, an idea that could account entirely for my interest in this collection, is the psychologist and philosopher William James’ insight about the importance of routine and habituation to a satisfying life:

“The more the of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” (p.81)

Are we overly obsessed with habit? Myriad recent publications focus on ideas about “life-hacking”: breaking habits, making habits, understanding habits, the psychology of scripted behaviours, beating procrastination, how to improve our willpower, how we rely too much on willpower… Is it, like the notion of “organisation”, list-making, time management, a trip to Officeworks before a deadline, just a placebo that gives us the sensation of accomplishment without requiring us to do anything of substance other than planning to do something of substance? Probably, we should be more concerned with the work. But then, aren’t these minute instants, the “how” of the work, the time we take our tea and how we take it, the matter our lives are made of? Speaking of tea, what of the Japanese tea ceremony, routine actions deployed in a mindful manner for a higher purpose, the arrival of the mind in the moment?

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. How to establish a routine, write more, be regular with my work and my ideas. Here be the weekly deadline, the impetus to think, and formulate full and grammatically correct sentences. I arrived at the idea after reading an old interview with Ann Patchett (having just finished reading one of her books, State of Wonder, the perfect novel for a week off work with a chest infection). Patchett described one of the most valuable lessons of her creative writing class:

“‘[Allan Gurganus’] lesson was how to work,’ she says. ‘We had to write a story a week, and a revision didn’t count. He said think of yourself as a pipe with a lot of muck in it and you have to get it out. The only way you can find out what you’re good at is to have written a ton of work. In the same way that if I was learning the cello I would understand that I had to practice hour after hour.'”

My pipes are full of gunk. My brain seems unable to form a thought into a coherent sentence, a paragraph, an essay because of all the muck (I think its technical name is the detritus of hours spent watching youtube videos of small mammals). So, this blog, a weekly ritual (comprised of smaller rituals of daily writing [i.e., daily hand-wringing and procrastination]), exists to sweep the chimney, so to speak.

Now, if only, like Proust, I could sleep until 4 pm and then have Celeste bring me a croissant.