Lit­tle of us left in the tomes we leave be­hind

Book­seller Michelle Cox­all con­sid­ers how we live with books, how books live with us, and how only one half of this re­la­tion­ship can live for­ever

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“The world is full of a num­ber of things I think we should all be as happy as kings” — Robert Louis Steven­son, A Child’s Gar­den of Verses Frank died when he was quite young, some­where around the age of my own sons now, but he died many years ago, and I never knew him. I have his books be­fore me, tales of mys­tery and ad­ven­ture, some with award la­bels stuck to their end­pa­pers, com­mem­o­rat­ing his achieve­ments in sport and at school.

He had ev­i­dently shown early aca­demic prom­ise, and I imag­ine the pride his par­ents must have taken in these mod­est tro­phies, each some man­i­fest re­as­sur­ance of a tran­si­tion to a dis­tant adult in­de­pen­dence.

I am in the sec­ond­hand book trade. I deal in the de­tri­tus left be­hind when lives cease, and I un­der­stand that the things with which we ac­cou­tre our lives, and to which we as­cribe such im­por­tance and sig­nif­i­cance, en­dure be­yond us, that we are tran­sient cus­to­di­ans.

I han­dle many books ev­ery day, many har­bour­ing clues to their prove­nance in the form of in­scrip­tions to past friends and lovers. I have sifted through the be­long­ings of people I have loved and who have died. Insen­sate ob­jects carry sto­ries, are arche­o­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts res­o­nant of once sim­ple or com­plex psy­cholo­gies, but they can rarely be read as such. They are mute, re­duced, after our death and when re­moved from their con­texts, to their ma­te­rial value, a value con­tin­gent on their ap­par­ent beauty, or rar­ity, or as a relic of a time past that evokes a sense of nos­tal­gia.

I kept, for many years, a plate dec­o­rated by my fa­ther, a man who built fac­to­ries and de­vised the ar­chi­tec­ture of in­dus­try. He had fash­ioned this ob­ject when he was in psy­chi­atric respite. I’m not sure — or per­haps sim­ply don’t want to ex­am­ine too closely — what this ob­ject sig­ni­fied for me. At a later time of cyn­i­cal purg­ing, pos­si­bly after he took his own life, I dis­carded it. It didn’t pos­sess the req­ui­site sig­ni­fiers that would have en­sured its en­durance, once I dis-

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