FROM a distance, I could see the scene playing out like Mad Max in the modern day.
Cars swarmed towards a fortress of a building, circling like angry wasps searching for a place to strike. As I drew closer, a restless crowd of a hundred or so were already clustered around the front door.
The air crackled with a sharp-edged energy. Eyes flicked furtively from face to face; bodies shifted to block competitors from gaining a vantage point.
I’d vowed I would never succumb to the mob mentality that has been driving people to stockpile and hoard during an anxious era of COVID-19.
Actually, I didn’t need to vow; I couldn’t even imagine behaving in such an anti-social, often aggressive manner. The crush and snatching, the tunnel-visioned, sharp-elbowed rivalry; the very thought of participating in a stampede for stock makes me break into a sweat.
And yet here I was, waiting impatiently to hunt and gather in one final charge.
Reader, a plea for forgiveness. Or at least understanding.
I wasn’t panic-buying.
I was panic-borrowing.
News of Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner’s decision to close council libraries reached me late on Saturday. Already, my local library had closed, apparently until June 30. Library members had been invited to borrow up to 60 books to help tide them over, but I had apparently missed my chance.
Then I remembered that Chermside Library opened on Sundays – and so, the mission was set.
I’d expected it to be easy. No big deal. Who borrows books these days anyway? Aren’t we constantly told that reading for leisure is a dying art? And that those who do still read prefer to do so on screens?
Not me. One of my earliest memories is of trotting out of Ashgrove Library on the heels of my father, carrying a picture book that seemed almost as big as I was. The smell of ink, the texture of paper beneath my fingertips, the comforting weight in my hands – for me, this is the alchemy of a book, soothing and settling, releasing little hits of dopamine as surely as a prescription pill.
And that is before I open its covers. Inside, it never ceases to amaze me, the idea that some magician has taken something as simple as scrawlings on paper, and woven a spell that might help us escape the world we’re in.
We need that magic now, perhaps more than ever in recent history.
Still, I wasn’t expecting the crowd at Chermside Library. But seen through this lens, they were themselves transformed.
They were simply fellow readers, like me, seeking an everyday miracle to help them endure what is to come: the elderly widow, balancing a book basket on her walker, who confided that reading staves off loneliness; the young bloke determined to find a couple of James Pattersons for his dad; the chatty seven-year-old who stopped wrestling his brother long enough to tell me he needs some more of the Weirdo series.
If there is a slim, silvery edge to the threatening cloud that is COVID-19, perhaps it may be that more people will rediscover the power of books, and connect with their children through shared reading at home.
Libraries may be closed but, thankfully, we have brilliant independent book stores such as Avid Reader and Riverbend Books doing everything they can to support readers in isolation, by hosting online reading groups and events, and offering free delivery to customers in their surrounding postcode, as well as their normal online sales.
Need a recommendation? These days, Queensland is home to so many award-winning authors, it is quite possible you have one living on your street. But since we are all distancing ourselves, I’ve asked a few of our best what they are planning to read in the coming weeks.
Journalist and author Matthew Condon has “decided to use this cocooning to try, once again, to read Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow, My Country. It’s a good time to disappear into our nation’s history and landscape…
“It feels a bit like a New Year’s resolution, and perhaps isolation gives birth to resolutions.”
For those intimidated by Herbert’s sprawling opus, Condon’s own recent books – the Three Crooked Kings trilogy, and The Night Dragon – are compelling explorations of Queensland crime and corruption.
Ashley Hay is as busy as always editing Griffith Review, which always features a variety of writing by writers and thinkers at the very top of their games.
Hay recommends Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11, a novel set in England in the wake of a swine-flu epidemic, followed by some Calvin and Hobbes – partly because the cartoon figure features in the novel, but also “because if we don’t find some levity and gentle wisdom, we’re in trouble.”
“I would (then) reread James Bradley’s Clade, because it is one of the finest imaginings of an end of the world… and I’d follow that trail into James’ new book, Ghost Species, which I can’t wait to read when it’s published on 28 April.”
The prolific local author Krissy Kneen is also busy, organising Zoom events for Avid Reader while cooking sauerkraut and hosting digital dinner parties.
Her reading list is built on fellow authors she supports: “If I can’t be with my friends, I can be with their books: Ellen Van Neervan (Throat), Mirandi Riwoe (Stone Sky, Gold Mountain), Liam Pieper (Sweetness and Light) and Ronnie Scott (The Adversary).”
And she has launched her own writing project as well.
“I’ve decided to write Lust In the Time of Coronavirus – a collection of erotic stories for this moment. I’m writing them weekly and reading them live online every week.”
Who said social isolation had to be dull?