MY FAMILY and I found ourselves in Cape Town’s Kalk Bay for the holidays. As well as the village’s many delights — the Olympia Café and the decadent seals twirling in the harbour — Kalk Bay possesses a fine bookshop.
If it is not independent of ownership, it is certainly independent of spirit. During several immersions there, I found myself wondering about the shop’s range and atmosphere, realising that as well as the staff clearly being readers and loving books, the shop pedalled a view of the world.
There was a Julian Barnes quote on the blackboard outside; books were quirkily priced; there were Fleetwood Mac and Leonard Cohen LPs in the loft.
There was somebody here — maybe more than one — telling me about their likes and dislikes. Here was a bookshop with a sense of self and of humour.
There was also somebody here nudging me gently, saying: “This is important. Read this!” I noticed a leaning towards quality nonfiction, nature writing, wild swimming, the spirit of place.
The books were contemporary, but throughout, I had a feeling that ran absolutely contrary to what you find in the soullessness of Exclusive Books and the ludicrous idea that reading books is really about drinking coffee. The zeitgeist at Kalk Bay Books said: “I have read John Williams’s Stoner and believe you will like it too. If you read it, we will be secret friends.”
Such care inspired me, and got me thinking. I have long been fascinated by the experiential tundras located between academic interpretation and exegesis of literature on the one hand and the mixed blessings of newspaper and internet reviewing on the other. There seems to me to be a wide world that falls between the two that is catered for by neither, a largely private world in the reception of books that is personal, quiet, reflective.
This world is strangely passionate, even religious or quasireligious. It is easy to parody — the breathless moment when you tell a friend or relative how important this is, important being imprecise shorthand for all sorts of things, including being stimulated or moved. We are sensory beings. We read with our bodies. Much that is precious to us as readers is primarily felt.
That these are commonplace make them no less important, no less regular events in the quiet ecstasies of reading. Academic exegesis takes me no closer to such ecstasy, such possession; neither does good book reviewing, although the advantage is that I just might go out and seek out something I think I might like.
To deepen my argument and make it more tangible, two examples. I have a close friend who cherishes the novels of Kent Haruf, so I went out and borrowed Plainsong from my local library. I found myself immersed in the easy-to-read goings-on of a plains town and the everyday lives of its inhabitants. The writing is spare, not without a kind of robust elegance, and occasionally quite funny. I liked the book very much without being completely touched or convinced, this, perhaps, being the province of my friend.
I asked my mate why he liked Haruf’s books. He explained he liked his noble diligence, his lack of flash. Slowly, I pieced it all together. My friend’s relationship was based not only on what Haruf had written, but on what he was. This was an intimate relationship, and although a strangely self-reinforcing one — my mate liked Haruf for exactly the types of things he valued and cultivated in himself — I identified with it completely.
What academic monographs and run-of-the-mill reviewing fail to do is to take us into this place — part fantasy, part reverie, part stunted friendship — at the very core of how readers read.
We read soulfully, vulnerably, and the bookshop in Kalk Bay seemed to acknowledge this, resisting the temptation to link the experience of selecting a book, buying it and taking it home to read with any other form of consumption. Here we had a strong black with a dash of milk and one sugar.
I identify with the strange, self-deluding selfishness of believing we’re reading an author as he has never been read before, because I’m doing it at the moment myself.
I’ve discovered James Joyce comparatively late, and jumped from Dubliners to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’ve inherited my father’s hard-backed copy, which plays a small but lovely part in my Joyce experience. I realise in reading more Joyce that I love his calm sensuousness, his attentiveness to rhythm, his technical bravery, somehow less obtrusive, say, than Virginia Woolf’s.
I have done much of my learning through books. Words ennoble and enrich us. Who hasn’t had the experience of reading something that is a condensation of much we have thought and felt, but better.
Whose day hasn’t been lightened by reading something with authority and verisimilitude that corrals all our wayward thoughts into an argument we might almost have made or have made in more impoverished form? Fiction pushes this still further, creating identifiable worlds, presenting ideas, dramas, characters in ways that amaze and calm us existentially.
Those wonderful people at Kalk Bay books know and understand this. They know that in this fractured world of nation states, ethnicities, clans and tribes, there is a secret secular community out there — the wide community of readers, folk who know the world can’t be measured, or fixed, or reduced to money or power, or, if it can, such narratives hold only so much meaning and explanatory value. In their numinous way, books remind us not only about what is and what was, but what we cannot say and cannot quite name, the great mysteries before which we shamelessly babble.