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Has anyone actually read the story of Peter Rabbit?

The enduring popularity of this children’s classic is a mystery to me.

Over a hundred years after Beatrix Potter wrote the story in 1902, Peter Rabbit is still bouncing around. Yes, he of the bibs, booties, baptism bowls and cutlery sets. He has a TV series and a movie, possibly two by now. According to peterrabbit.com, four Beatrix Potter books are sold every minute. For all the ubiquity though, I haven’t found many people who know the Peter plot.

You can probably find it on your bookshelf and definitely in the library but allow me… Peter’s Mum tells him and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, that they can play in the forest but definitely not Mr Macgregor’s garden. This is off-limits because Peter’s dad was caught there and baked into a pie. However, it’s full of carrots and radishes, so Peter leaves his sisters picking blackberries and heads off to the garden. He gorges himself on lettuce and radishes and has to eat some parsley to ease the ache of his gluttony.

Mr Macgregor sees him and there’s a bit of a chase. Peter loses his shoes and gets tangled in a net because of his buttons. He hides in a half-full watering can and the farmer gives up the chase. Peter jumps around a bit looking for a way out of the garden, sees a cat, then sees the gate and makes a dash for it out of there.

He heads home where his sisters, who did what their mother asked and gathered berries in the forest, get to eat bread, milk and blackberries for supper. Peter on the other hand doesn’t feel great and gets put to bed with a few teaspoons of chamomile. The End. Exactly. An odd little story. Maybe even a little low key for such a big hit. Reading it makes me realise how conditioned I am to the narrative of my time. My arc expectations are more rigid than I thought.

I am all for Beatrix Potter. A female author and illustrator in a time when that was as unusual as it was difficult. I’m just surprised at how such a plain little story became so popular and has turned into merchandise machine that it is today. I’m wondering if there’s a story underneath, like the DeBeers campaign for diamond rings. Is there a tale of a limited-edition christening set that put Peter on the shelves as competition for the Royal Doulton Bunnykins?

If you’ve read a few of the Beatrix Potter stories, then you’ll know that Peter Rabbit is only remarkable in the fact that it somehow became a hit. Have you read The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse?

Timmy Willie, a country mouse, accidentally falls into a hamper which is delivered to the city. When it arrives he gets out and freaks out. It’s noisy and busy and he gets chased by a cat. He runs into a hole in the wall where he meets Johnny Town-Mouse who is entertaining eight other gentleman mice.

The food doesn’t agree with Timmy Willie and neither does the lifestyle. He gets thin and sad and wants to go home and Johnny Town-Mouse says he could’ve gone home in the hamper last week. Timmy Willie hops in the next hamper and is happy to get back home. Nearly a year later Johnny Town-Mouse turns up for a visit. He doesn’t like it much and goes home the next day. The End.

Or perhaps you’re wondering what happens in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Well, funny you should ask. The squirrels need to get across to the island where there are nuts to collect. Old Brown, the owl, lives on the island and the squirrels need his permission to be there. They arrive on the island and give him three dead mice.  At the same time Nutkin, a young squirrel, goes in front of Old Brown and does a dance and sings a cheeky song. Old Brown closes his eyes and goes to sleep while the squirrels start gathering nuts.

The next day they offer him a ‘fine fat vole’. This time Nutkin sings and dances and pokes Old Brown with a nettle. Old Brown picks up the vole and closes the door in Nutkin’s face. All the other squirrels go and gather nuts while Nutkin plays marbles on Old Brown’s porch. I know, totally provocative. This kid is jeopardising the winter stores of his species.

The next day they bring honey and Nutkin gets in old Brown’s face with another song. Old Brown eats all the honey and ignores Nutkin. Meanwhile the other squirrels go off collecting again and this time Nutkin mooches around on a rock playing skittles with pine cones.

On the final day, the squirrels bring an egg. This time Nutkin sings a song and then jumps onto Old Brown’s head! Ridiculous. If Old Brown isn’t going to do something about this him, then I will. Suddenly Nutkin is in Old Brown’s pocket. Old Brown picks him up by the tail but Nutkin ‘pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two’??!!!

He escapes and spends the rest of his days up a tree, stamping his feet and shouting ‘Cuck-cuck-cuck-curr-r-r-cuck-k-k!’.

So, there you go. You really can’t pick a hit. 

How heavy is a half-read book?

Abandoning a book before the end wasn’t something I could always do.

For a long time, I read books I didn’t enjoy, slogging it out right until the end. I’ve since discovered that my time is finite – and there really are too many wonderful books still to be read on my bedside bookstack. So, just like I started eating watermelon pips because life was too short, I also decided it was OK to put a book down without finishing it.

I have a reverence for books and a love for authors that made me think sticking it out was offering some kind of loyalty or respect. There was also an ego element of unfinished business or a weakness of my part. As James Colley said in his article for the Guardian, “When a book is finished it becomes a trophy. When it’s left half-finished it becomes an albatross.”

I’m embarrassed to say that when reading some classics, I used to hang on just because I thought it was important to have read certain authors. I’m going to say it quietly, because I’m an Australian and it seems unpatriotic, but I think it was Patrick White who broke me. I tried The Aunts Story. I tried Voss. I just couldn’t do them. I’m happy to take recommendations if anyone has better books of his to start with, but there are too many other books that I love reading for me to sit through the penance of a ‘should’ book anymore.

I’ve also given Ulysses a go. Twice. I’m in good company. Goodreads did a survey of “the most initiated but unfinished book of all time” and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 came in at the top. People also jumped ship on Ulysses and Moby Dick.

I’ve never been a skipper or a skimmer. My sister used to flick through and read the endings of books, which still kind of shocks me. My husband is quite happy to skim through for gist. But I’m all in on my books. Otherwise, I’d wonder what I was missing at sentence and word level. It’s about more than gist and a good-ending for me. I like to roll around in the muck of it, the syntax and semantics.

I still feel some guilt when I desert a book. And I give them more pages and time than I should. My fomo (fear of missing out) and pride keep me turning pages much longer than any interest in the actual story does. I wonder if maybe I’m going to miss something amazing 10 pages from the end.

It could be the Middlemarch syndrome. I hated it for the first 400 pages and then something clicked and I was so glad I’d stayed on. It can take time to get into the rhythm of a book and just because it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean it should be ditched. But there’s also no need to turn something enjoyable into a chore. Life is definitely too short to create more chores!

Marginalia

Notes from the edge of the page

To me, books aren’t sacred as physical objects. Don’t let that stop you from lending me one. I’m a careful borrower. I think they should be treated properly and have a few things to say when my kids casually step on them. But as an owner, I’m happy to fold corners, attach page-markers, highlight paragraphs and scrawl in the margins.

I like my books loved and lived in. Marginalia isn’t just an ‘I was here’ marker but proof of meaning and connection to a text.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to think margin comments were only legitimate as study notes in high school texts. I kept my other book pages clean and crisp. But after school finished, I missed the frantic margin scratches even though they were sometimes crammed in so tight you couldn’t even read them.

In the early tentative days, I only used a pencil. I wrote my comments and thoughts nervously, like someone was looking over my shoulder and tutting in my ear. But I grew bolder and pen is, of course, much easier to read.

Marginalia is often discussed in terms of the annotations and notes that were made on medieval manuscripts. These were intended as suggestions for future editions. Margins used to be wide specifically for the purpose of making notes. Edgar Allen Poe, a fan of generous margin dimensions, is quoted as saying in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Mark Twain must have had similar ideas as a lot of his marginalia still exists. He’s said to have written ‘cat could do better literature than this’ in the margin of one novel and Entropy has an image of the quip he inserted on the title page of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men about it being translated ‘into rotten English’ from Greek.

The margin commentary isn’t for everyone. I lent a friend my high school copy of Wuthering Heights when she needed it for her book club but she gave it back a few days later saying that she couldn’t read it because of all the notes. Fair enough. They are distracting.

I can get just as caught up re-reading my own markings as someone else’s. It’s a little glimpse into a private moment from the past. Sometimes I can’t imagine why I marked certain sentences over others. Other times, I thank my former self for leading me straight back to the treasure.

Reading one friend’s book, I felt like I was seeing more than I should. A comment about heartache was underlined. In the margin she’d written That’s how it feels again and again! The second ‘again’ left an indent on the next three pages.

I know I’m not alone in the enjoyment and fascination with marginalia. For those with a penchant to read more there is the New Yorker’s take on marginalia, the Guardian’s article on Marlene Dietrich’s margin calls, the Atlantic’s list of medieval manuscript monk quotes and Entropy’s photos.

The bedside book stack – June 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on my bedside book stack this month.

Well-behaved women by Emily Paull, Margaret River Press, 2019

I’ve just finished reading this debut short story collection by Perth writer Emily Paull. I loved the heat in these pages, the feeling of sand between my toes, the nostalgia and longing of adolescence and the family ties both close and distant. Always refreshing to have strong female characters in all their varied glory.

A constant hum by Alice Bishop, Text Publishing, 2019

Another debut short story collection by a female Australian writer. This collection focuses on the fallout after the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria – especially prescient given the summer we just had.

There are brief flash fiction pieces against longer stories. A great read and a sobering reminder of life continuing, though forever altered, long after the fires leave the front pages.

You think it, I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday books, 2018

Another collection of short stories. I’ve only read Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels and it’s always fun to see an author write in another form. What was even more interesting, given the recent release of her novel Rodham, was reading the Hilary Clinton short story. I’m wondering if that story was the starting point for what eventually became Rodham. It’s quite nice to chart a narrative trajectory.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Anyone who read my post about the late poet Mary Oliver will know how much I love and respect her writing. There is usually one of her books permanently on my pile. They’re perfect to just dip in and out of. But this is a book of essays rather than poetry.

True to her loves, there is a focus on the natural world, also on writers, her past and of course poetry. These reflections, just like her poetry, slow down the world around you until it’s only her words that exist.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007

Grace Paley is an American writer who I only recently discovered, via the recommendations of Francine Prose (who appears below in my pile). She was a writer, activist and teacher and you can feel her passion and intent crackle through these stories.

A lot of these stories were written in the 70s and 80s and as a woman reading in the 21st Century there’s a marvel at how things have changed….and stayed the same.

I read these on a slow drip feed, in-between novels and whatever else I have on the go, so that she’ll be with me for the long haul.

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.   

An interest in life, Grace Paley

She sure knows how to start a story!

The Business of being a writer by Jane Friedman, The University of Chicago Press, 2018

I’m subscribed to Jane’s Electric Speed newsletter which is full of excellent advice and links for writers. This book had lots of great reviews and she is a practical lady with years of experience in publishing and writing (in the US). She presents the book as a reality check for those wanting to make writing their living, not in a mean way, but suggesting what you could do to make it sustainable.

I confess, I haven’t got past the introduction cos I’m just not feeling it at bedtime. It’s a ‘work’ book for me. I think it’ll be a good public transport or lunch break book. And even in the introduction I got out the highlighter and made some annotations.

What to read and why by Francine Prose, Harper Perennial, 2018

When I read Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, I fell even more in love with reading and writing. I walked away with a new list of recommended writers that I can’t believe I’d lived without, including Grace Paley and the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.

I haven’t started this yet, but I’m hoping for the same sublime experience.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin Books, 2004 (written sometime AD 121 – 180)

Every now and then I think it’s time to grow up and give an ancient classic a go. I haven’t yet, but Maria Popova wrote a beautiful piece on this in brainpickings and I ordered it instantly. Sorry to say it’s a thin little thing and has been sitting forlornly at the penultimate bottom of my pile. Roman philosophy, no matter how beautiful in reflection, feels too heavy for me at the moment.

The memoirs of a survivor by Doris Lessing, Picador, 1974

I love a bit of Doris Lessing but I just didn’t feel it when I started reading this one. It’s supposed to be amazing, which always makes me soldier on a bit longer and give it more of a go. The bookmark shows I got to page 38 but I couldn’t tell you anything about it. Looks like I either have to start again or pull the plug.

Bookshelf bliss

A shelf full of books will always be a comfort and delight.

I recently watched a movie and at different times a son and a father moved into new places and had to find things to put on their empty shelves. Empty shelves? The idea just doesn’t compute.

I don’t think our place will ever have enough shelf space. We have books lying horizontal across vertical rows. I think there are one or two shelves which even have double rows. I know, not fair at all to the inside titles who never get to see the light of the lounge room. There are book piles by our bedsides and piles that have collected where children left them.

I know people love their negative space but for me the joy of a bookshelf is to see it full. There is something so comforting about a full bookshelf in all its proud coloured glory. I love walking past houses where people don’t shut their curtains, especially at dusk. I’m a bit nosy anyway but seeing into rooms with a bookshelf at capacity is just a delight.

I read an article by a writer who had dumped all her books in favour of a digital library. She wrote of how bereft she then felt, looking around and suddenly being a person without books. Marie Kondo copped it when she said people shouldn’t have more than 30 books. I think it got taken out of context. Her philosophy is about keeping what you love and she’s obviously not that big on books. I’m happy to thin the ranks and pass on what doesn’t mean anything to me anymore but the physical presence of books on a shelf is what sparks joy for me.

I am also prone to bookshelf envy. But it’s a light envy, because really, it’s love. Pinterest sends me the most dazzling shots of bookshelves and I love reading library features with their angled shots of tiered shelves. My friend recently had bookshelves built into her study, two wonderful stacks that reach the ceiling. Bliss. Her sister has a reading room. I wasn’t sure they even existed outside Austen novels. Swoon.

Even drawings of bookshelves will do. Julia Donaldson’s wonderful picture book The Detective Dog follows the mystery of some stolen school books. There’s a page near the end when the book thief is introduced to the local library. We’ve read it hundreds of times and I still love turning the page for the big reveal – a double page covered in bookshelves.

Thousands of books from the floor to the ceiling. The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.

The Detective Dog, Julia Donaldson

That’s exactly how it feels.

Who will you be when the masks come off?

What will you do differently when the hand sanitiser is put away and we can hold each other as close and tight as we want to?

Six months ago, COVID-19 came along. Under a microscope, it looked like a red wedding bouquet but coronavirus turned our little lives inside out. Our mortality and vulnerability were suddenly obvious. Touch and proximity disappeared. Industries and their jobs vanished.

And we were all told to stay home. No school or office. Commutes disappeared, so did most weeknight obligations. No visiting family or friends. No swimming lessons or yoga practice. No movie nights or catch-up coffees. No park play-dates. No live music or after show eats. No leg waxing or window shopping. No street vendors. No travel. No hugs and kisses.

As I pined for connection with family and friends, I also realised how much I needed to get outside. I craved nature, greenery, ocean air, any contact with the world other than the four walls I lived in. We took walks, discovered new pockets of our area and talked to neighbours we didn’t know.

The weekends stretched out to become almost spacious. I had time to walk to the pace of my two-year old and was sad to realise that I usually tugged him along. And how nice was it to see the parks with people in them and families riding their bikes together?

With all the white noise of normal life muted, there was more time to think -not about the bigger picture of globalisation or economic models, but on a personal level about what really matters. I certainly won’t take touch and its connection for granted. I’d like community and kindness to be a bigger part of my life. I’d like to keep the pace in step with my kids and have time to cook and play and walk as a family.

When the world went on hold, my to-do list shrunk and I was liberated from all the other mental ‘stuff’ that constantly hovers on my periphery. Now the restrictions are being eased and I hope that I can hold onto some of my lockdown lessons. 

It’s human instinct to reassess when your life has been interrupted in such a dramatic way. What will you jettison and what will you keep when the masks come off?

Keep your notebook close in a crisis

The simple trinity of a pen, a person and some paper has provided solace for many before us.

We’re in uncharted territory here. Most of us haven’t lived through a pandemic. None of us have lived through one of these proportions. When we write, we can use our words as an antidote to anxiety, as freedom from our confinement and to simply mark that we were here.

Writing during a time of crisis is not a new idea. Keeping a journal as a way to manage anxiety and depression was instinctive for writers like Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka. Both of them used diaries to detail their internal struggles.

There’s a relief in the simplicity of writing a journal. It’s just you and your thoughts without the echo of comments or threads. But it’s also a ritual that can ease your anxiety and give you a chance to reflect. When there are so many things outside our control, routine and habit can help to calm that anxiety.

There is also a sense of ‘better out than in’. The brain dump, brain vomit or ‘morning pages’ from Julia Cameron’s the Artists Way all acknowledge the idea that if you articulate it on a page, it’s less likely to rattle around in your head.

The days can be long and lonely during lockdown. Journaling can give you an outlet for your feelings, providing an internal audience when no one else is there. It also offers a sense of escape from isolation. 

Scottish poet, William Soutar wrote his book, Diary of a Dying Man, when he was quarantined with pneumonia. He spoke of his diary as a true companion and friend. American writer Flannery O’Connor also wrote a lot of her close observations about life as an escape from her sickbed.

Thomas Mallon in A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries, said that some people have kept a journal “not so much to record lives as to create them, their diaries being the only world in which they could fully live.” This is true for Xavier de Maistre. In 1794, he wrote A Journey Round my Room. It was written while he was under house arrest after deciding to explore his room and record it as a travel journal.

People journal against anxiety and isolation but you can also write to simply record. You can write for posterity like Samuel Pepys, the grandfather of modern diary entries. He just wrote it how it was.

Pepys covered the quotidian highs and lows of 17th Century England. He also covered the Great Plague of London. As a wealthy man, his experiences weren’t at the frontline but his observations of daily life give us insight into that time. He tells us that he chews tobacco to protect against infection and about his suspicions that the hair from corpses is being used by wig-makers. 

Restrictions feel normal now but they aren’t and this time is going to be interesting to future generations. Curators are already collecting proof of life as we’re living it now. In recovery people often write to addictions or perpetrators. In a pandemic, write to whoever or whatever you need to. Write to your unborn children and grandchildren. They’re going to want to hear about it. Or write to your future self, because we’ll all be different by the end of this.

This is a unique moment in time and our individual experiences of it will create the history of the future. Your notes from the pandemic could enter the Corona-lit canon that is no doubt going to emerge when the masks come off. They’re certainly going to help you survive the anxiety and isolation of life lived within four walls.

Valé Mary Oliver

The late American poet Mary Oliver blocked out life’s white noise and tuned in to our natural world.

The American poet Mary Oliver died nearly a year and a half ago and I’ve just found out. Somehow that adds to the loss.

For anyone who thinks (some) poetry is too hard (and I’ll gingerly raise my hand), read Mary Oliver. There are no tricks and turns for the sake of it.

One of her great gifts, was to take a moment in time and hush the rest of the world so we could kneel down with her and take a really close look. Her words magnify the natural world and return it golden and holy.

She had such reverence for life and her passionate questions have become mantras to many. 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

These words from her poem Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches? were written on a post-it and stuck above our kitchen sink until it would stick no longer. Then I moved it to my desk, this pink post-it,  water-stained and sun-faded with a message too vital for the recycling bin.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In The Summer Day she calls us to action again. How can we fumble through our days on repeat when life is in session?

Whenever the world is turned up too high or there’s too much interference, reading Mary Oliver mutes all the chatter. It’s quiet, suspended there in her poetry, watching birds arc in the sky, noticing mushrooms on the forest floor or the trees as theylean in and sigh together.

Her North American environment is completely alien to me. We have bushland and heat and seasons that aren’t so neatly marshalled. But what she showed us was universal. Moments. Wonder. Reverence for silence and nature. I think we can all understand that.

Thank you, Mary, for trusting your words to us.

Shakespeare, me and an unchanged signature

Anyone else still using the loopy mess they invented when they were 10?

Apparently when Shakespeare was bored he would practise signatures over and over to decide which one he liked the best. When I was ten I, like Shakespeare, was bored and decided it was time to invent my signature.

A signature was such an adult gesture. I wanted to emulate the sophisticated copperplate loops I’d seen. However, my cohort at school didn’t learn copperplate handwriting. Our cursive was called ‘foundation’ handwriting and it was really just print tenuously held together by little curls from one letter to the next. There was nothing romantic or slanted. Foundation handwriting was all function and no flourish.

There are a few decisions to be made when you create a signature. Do you use your full name, initials or an initial and a surname? I decided on a very loopy N Cullen. I was proud that the N was surrounded by the C of my surname. It seemed like a clever touch. And, yes, it’s as bubbly and tween as it sounds. It’s lucky I didn’t use Nina, because there’d probably still be a heart over the i. This was supposed to be my understudy signature while I perfected some neat and impressive cursive squiggle worthy of the important documents it would one day grace.

Then I started signing things; a kids’ bank account, a passport, birthday cards. 10 years later when I wanted to dissociate myself from this loopy embarrassment, I’d signed too many things. I had a driver’s licence and a bank card. Every official document that’d been pushed under my pen had the same signature.

I never sat down again to nut out my signature and create something with a bit more dignity. Luckily, signatures don’t matter now as much as they used to. Cheques barely exist and I don’t even think you sign the back of your credit card anymore. Legal and medical documents still need you to make your personal mark but I’ve made peace with my squiggles now. It makes me look young.