Secondhand bookstores used to fill me with dread. They were the places of neglected stories, of lost hours, of the authors the world had forgotten. This is, of course, not entirely true, but back then I was trying to be someone – a writer – and I saw secondhand bookstores the same way I saw graveyards: as places stories went to die.
The books that surround us say a lot about who we are – or were – and, two weeks ago, as I prepared to shift my life from Sydney to Barcelona, I sat on my bedroom floor staring at the 100 or so titles I had acquired over my six years in the city. Some were funny. A couple were classics. Most were depressing. I’m going to get rid of all my books, I told my mum on the phone. It’s no wonder I was sad; look at all this crap I was reading.
But in the end, I found I couldn’t get rid of all of them. As I separated them into piles – keep, throw, I don’t know – seeing their covers, reading their opening pages, sometimes getting swallowed by whole chapters, certain books returned me to a world largely of firsts.
With Richard Brautigan’s An Unfortunate Woman, I became 20 again, little more than a boy, moving interstate for the first time. With Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, I was 21 and falling deeply in love. With Mira Gonzalez’s i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, I was 25, back in that Marrickville apartment with the neighbour who kept trying to cough the cancer out, finishing my first book. With Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I saw myself at 28, in Brisbane, my family home, in the room I grew up in, reading after a 10-month migraine – after a year of not reading or writing anything at all.
But these books were more than just firsts. They were whole worlds filled with laughter and sadness and magic and death and beauty and pain, and they had shaped and supported and made the world more tolerable when I needed them most. These were books with answers, or if not answers, then questions, which is to say that these books were my teachers.
There was Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai and Ways of Going Home that taught the beauty of brevity, of pause, of quietness, of being heard. And there was Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks that was an urgent, expert reminder that there were no rules, that a book could sing and stare and dance; that a book had fists and that, done correctly, a book could masquerade as a book before becoming a fist, trapping one forever inside the other.
There was even a book by the poet Jamie Mortara. We had met, briefly, in 2015 in Minneapolis at a poetry reading, and I had purchased Some Planet, and it had brought me to tears. I knew suddenly that I could not abandon these texts, that I could not send them to the graveyard, to those dusty shops, to be forgotten, left, lost. So I did the thing I’d always done. I picked up a pen. I wrote.
On the inside covers of 10 of those books, I wrote messages to friends telling them that I would miss them, that they meant so much to me, that these books had meant everything to me too. I explained that these books had helped me, had been like mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters to me. I hoped that if my friends ever needed them, that those books would be there waiting for them too. Perhaps this was my way of cheating on goodbye, of keeping the story going with the people I would miss long after I had gone.
The day before I left, one of those friends helped me pack up my room, and we drove the rest of the books to Sappho’s in Glebe. The book clerk browsed the titles, smiled and said: “I’m sure we can find these books a home.” Perhaps, it’s best to stop there, on that word: home. Suddenly, looking around, I realised I was going far, far away. But I also knew that if I ever felt lonely, or lost or sad, I could simply take myself to a secondhand bookstore where I knew, between the covers, entire worlds were waiting for me – for anyone – to return.
• Oliver Mol is the author of Lion Attack! (Scribe)