Books and on Being a Bibliophile – Heartbreak and Happiness


Spending a rainy day reading in bed or on the sofa. tucked up with a good book is certainly my idea of luxury. Have always imagined that one day I may very well end up like the ‘poor poet’ in one of my favourite, charming ‘Beidermeier paintings’ by Carl Spietzwig.

Although hopefully, I won’t need an umbrella like he has, to stave off the leaks when it rains, although you never know in Melbourne!

In a way surrounding myself with books has been part of my looking to value myself and to conserve my health and wellbeing for a very long time. They have also aided my life’s journey and over the years have practically helped me to plan many adventures with my family, both at home and overseas.

For thirteen years they were also freely available to students of the teaching Academy I worked for. They spent many a happy hour browsing and researching from them in the Academy library on Macquarie Street at Sydney (1992 – 1999) and in library of The Turret, the fabulous  teaching space in St Martins House in the precinct of St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane (2000 – 2005).

When it came the time for me to move to Melbourne I had to sell off the greater portion of this fine art, design history and decorative arts library, which had been put together lovingly over forty years. It was like tearing out both my heart and soul.

One of the few people who understood why I was distressed was my eldest son, also a bit of a Bibliophile albeit on a smaller scale these days.

He collects books on an electronic device instead of in a bookcase. Certainly much easier to take with you when you move.

After making all the arrangements to send them off at the last minute I couldn’t bear to see them all go, because they were so important to my security. Irrational I know, but there it is.

As a frail human being I freely admit they were, and are still my ‘Linus’ blanket. My remaining books and a China Trade ceramic God of double happiness are today still my home. Where they both are you will find me also.

This sensational biscuit ‘God’ from the period of the Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) Emperor (1654-1722) is very special and I have since learned a great deal about him from my books.

God of Double HappinessHe once belonged to a dear friend, whose erudition I admired. He had over his lifetime amassed a wonderful Chinese collection of ceramics, which was dispersed when he died.

This figure was one of his most treasured pieces, not because of monetary value, but because of the intrinsic qualities, attached to its history, artistic heritage and culture. My friend used to visit me often in The Turret (2000 – 2005) at Brisbane, to share his prodigious knowledge. When he passed on into that big library in the sky I secured his lovely object.

The crinkles around his eyes from smiling were very appealing, and his gummy smile reminded me of a few wise old men met along life’s way. Also its symbolism and intent is very appealing. When I move house he comes along in my arms. He is the first object to find a place, one where he can watch over proceedings.

Being a bibliophile is not only about heartbreak, it is also about happiness too. The ‘smell’ of books en masse has for me at least, has always been very alluring, as has their tactile quality.

Many hours were spent in the Randwick Municipal Library as a child and later the State Library in Macquarie Street, Sydney and Fisher Library, Sydney Uni.

Have always loved those books that were ‘bound in Morocco’, a tradition associated with binding books with the skin of goats formerly grazing the grass at exotic Morocco. And what about those with pure gold protecting the edges of their beautiful hand made paper from dust!

For me, and I suspect, for many other members of my generation, part of the process of having an association with books was browsing through bookstores, especially those containing ‘antique’ books. Such special places.

Must say I particularly enjoyed hunting about in shops specializing in out of print books all over the world. Frequent visits to Melbourne from Sydney were a joy for years and found me headed straight for Kay Craddock’s basement bookstore on chic Collins Street, which was right next door to the fabulous flagship emporium, Georges, now only a memory.

Happily I can report from Melbourne Kay is still in her book basement.

Browsing in the rare division and buying at Berkelouw’s amazing book barn in the Southern Highlands of NSW was also an annual joy throughout the ’80’s and early 90’s.

Often when purchasing old and rare books I would find a personal photo, a cutting from a newspaper, or a letter from a previous owner that had been filed away carefully and then passed along to me. Special.

SAND, GEORGE. 1804-1876: Twenty Volume Set of George Sand novels in brown Morocco, The Novels of George Sand. Boston: The Jefferson Press, [1900-02].

SAND, GEORGE. 1804-1876: Twenty Volume Set of George Sand novels in brown Morocco, The Novels of George Sand. Boston: The Jefferson Press, [1900-02].

At Berkelouw‘s retail store at Paddington in Sydney in the early 90’s I remember discovering a rare set of the novels by the controversial (woman dressed as a man) author George Sand (1804 – 1876), which were brilliantly bound in colourful Morocco.

At the time I so wished they could be mine, but they were outside my budget so had to decline. They were of special interest though, and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to view and handle them wearing white gloves.

Judy Davis as George Sand, Impromptu

Not long before this encounter happened I saw the movie Impromptu (1991), which starred Australian actor Judy Davis as George Sand with Hugh Grant as Chopin and Julian Sands as Franz Liszt. Just brilliant.

Incredibly a few nights later I went to Sydney airport to pick up my husband from off the last flight from Melbourne.

In those days it was easy to go and wait at the door for the passengers to come off the plane. As I was standing there alone, at about 10 pm amazingly, up came Judy Davis.

Ms Davis was there to also pick up her husband Colin Friels from the same plane. So I plucked up the courage to talk to her and we passed the time pleasantly. I told her about my find,  the delightful set of Sand novels in the Paddington store and said if anyone should own them, she should, having played Sand so brilliantly.

When I went back a few weeks later they were gone and I have always wondered if they ended up in her bookcase. It’s a mystery.

Then there is a delightful poem I discovered tucked up in a book about glass. Called Chinoiserie, it was written by someone who remains anonymous.

There were constant delights when plotting with a book dealer and friend James Larsen, who was an enthusiastic and important conduit in my search for additions to my ever expanding collection. He would ring out of the blue from unexpected places to report his findings.

Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher

I remember it took him years in the eighties to find a copy of Nancy Mitford’s large ‘coffee table’ size book of the biography of Madame de Pompadour for me. She has always been one of my favourite women of influence.

Then he endeared himself forever when he also found the biography of Louis XIV The Sun King in the same large edition. James Larsen specialized in finding rare and out of print editions, crime, science fiction, history, biography, and children’s books and still does, in his delightful bookstore at Exeter in NSW. These days he’s also handily ‘online’.

The longest time we spent was about ten years to find a pristine copy of ‘Castiglione at the Court of the Chinese Emperors‘. In all that time I never gave up hope one would turn up as another Bibliophile joined that larger library in the sky.

Then out of the blue he rang from deep in one of the states in the U.S.A. to say he had found it and to confirm its purchase.

Remembering that someone else had preserved, and passed a book along to me was what eventually got me through my personal crisis over losing most of my treasured library.

I had to keep reminding myself it was all about being a conservator and safeguarding someone else’s imagination, which as 20th century scientist extraordinaire Albert Einstein reminded us, is more important than knowledge.

An early association with books, or learning in any form, is the path to getting in the habit of embracing lifelong learning, which is now an essential aspect of twenty first century life.

Encouraging children to read and become used to handling books should happen for any child from as soon after birth is possible.

Reading aloud to them is vital in ensuring their path forward will be as good as it can be. Love2Read 2014 – is Australia’s Read Aloud National Event

As soon as each of my three sons arrived home from the hospital a colourful heavy card or padded plastic book was the first object that went into their cot alongside a colourful mobile and rattle. By the time they all sat up it was the first thing they reached for.

Reading aloud, and singing a song each night before they went to sleep, became an essential aspect of their daily routine and early education from a few months onward. Reading aloud continued until they were all able to do it for themselves, and even then the youngest would still occasionally ask would I read to him to help him go to sleep.

Having a love of reading certainly helped with their study and attaining good averages at school and university. Today, I am very pleased to observe they are all still voracious readers and devourers of knowledge.

Recently it was revealed to me that reading aloud and singing them to sleep at night is among the happiest memories of their childhood.

Then there was all those trips to the The Children’s Bookshop (1971) at Beecroft, in the northern districts of Sydney, where we lived for eleven years.

The world is now a changing, with ebooks and ibooks being the way of the future. After this decade to enjoy the tactile quality of books will mean visiting ‘antique’ or ‘vintage’ style bookshops.

Being a bibliophile has been integral to my life journey and like most people, it started in my childhood, however it was not as well planned by my own parents, even though my father was in the ‘education’ business. A Headmaster.

It was my mother who first encouraged my interest in reading because her childhood had been virtually bereft of books, except those kept at the tiny one man, one room school she attended as one of the daughters of the Head Shearer on the Belltrees Station at Scone in rural NSW.

Her education ceased at sixth grade Primary School because out of her big family she was the one ‘chosen’ to stay at home and complete domestic tasks and look after her mother.

Although she got out of that one by marrying and having seven children of her own. So it was left to dear Aunty Ivy, whose fiancée was killed in World War II, to fulfill that role. She was a great reader too and encouraged me constantly.

As I was growing up my mother was always warning me of the very real dangers associated with ‘rising above one’s station in life’.

This was totally at odds with her secretly encouraging me to read and expand my knowledge behind closed doors. My darling grandmother was the most encouraging.

She wanted me to not rise or walk, but to leap forward and embrace life and knowledge. She knew it was the only way to keep ‘moving forward’ as she had done when her husband died dreadfully of cancer at a young age and she gathered up her 9 children (3 fostered) and moved to Sydney so they would all survive.

Lady ReadingFollowing my father’s death, when my mother was 66, she was found every day devouring every word in the Herald newspaper and Women’s Weekly monthly magazine.

They were the only luxuries she could allow herself on her Australian ‘widow’s’ pension.

Fortunately, I was in a position at the time to indulge her new found love of reading with novels I knew she would enjoy for gifts.

Happily, she became an armchair traveler until finally in 1999, aged 93 she journeyed on alone.

Today books, are as they have always been, integral to both my life and the decor of where I live. You can always find some scattered around.

Heartbreak and happiness is definitely part of the story of a bibliophile.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

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