Last year, or perhaps it was this year, Sydney University held their annual Book Fair in which I, foolishly and naïvely, went along to without extra bags and instead carried the 20+ books back home in one of the supplied cardboard boxes. Today was UNSW’s turn to sell off their books and this time, I was prepared.It was a bigger selection than the one at Sydney Uni, with an upstairs collection dedicated to old and rare books, complete with the musty smell of aging paper, an acquired smell, with a section labelled Ephemera, which, incidentally, would make a great name for a zine. I start my journey in the Literature section, box in arms, bounding into people who are also carrying their own boxes. While the section is more extensive than other university book fairs the selection is not quite fantastic. But I do manage to grab some books I know of: Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse; John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, having read his Life Class; and D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love, to ad to my thick as a brick Lawrence compendium. I was hoping to chance upon some Hemingway or reacquaint myself with some Fitzgerald, but it was not to be.
The Biography section was quite extensive, and I managed to capture Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjӧrkman, to ad to my love of the eccentric director, whose Purple Rose of Cairo and Shadows and Fog remain a couple of my favourites, much more so than the more commercial works only recent fans would be aware of. Because most of the books are no more than $3, I get carried away and just put in my box whatever seems interesting at the time. This includes Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs, and The Life of Graham Greene, Volume 1: 1904-1939 to top off the biographies. I was disappointed not to find Frank Zappa in the crowd. I also throw in D’Arcy Niland’s The Big Smoke, a Sydney based novel from 1959 that delves into the lives of ‘priests and prostitutes.’ I’m genuinely intrigued.
At this point, one of the women with the microphone announces that the Crime section has grown to three separate sections. I dutifully peruse what’s on offer and grab only James Ellroy’s Clandestine and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, whose protagonist Wormold was based on the Lisbon-based, Spanish double-agent Garbo. As a side note, a great Spanish documentary, Garbo: The Spy, came out in 2009 and premiered in Australia last year at the 2011 Spanish Film Festival. It closely followed the life of Joan Pujol Garcia, aka ‘Garbo’. An interesting parallel to Greene’s Havana.
Also at this point in time, a guy donning a cap, a flimsy white shirt and pseudo jeans walks up to me.
‘Ah, Graham Greene is fantastic,’ he says, as though I’m some literary virgin.
‘Yeah, I know. Good stuff.’ I offer, not really intent on having a conversation and instantly reminded of why I sometimes dislike these popular fairs- they tend to attract the young and annoying, and sometimes the desperate. For some reason creeps swarm these places. Or maybe I’m being harsh.
‘Do you read a lot?’
‘I suppose.’ I can’t begin to get into a conversation about my reading habits. The guy’s holding a Nicolas Sparks book after all. I smile and leave Crime for Travel.
The Travel section is taken up mostly by old Lonely Planet Guides. A rather plump woman with a tighter-than-skin white singlet and a nose ring is loading them up into her box, mainly Italy and England. I pick up the Granta Book of Travel, an issue with Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Salmon Rushdie, but what really interests me are the titles of the chapters: Paul Theroux’s Subterranean Gothic, Fat Girls in Des Moins, Márquez’s Watching the Rain in Galicia, Into the Heart of Borneo– that sort of thing. Some sound like titles from a Tom Waits album.
Language is right nearby, and I walk past two teenagers arguing over the credibility of a George Negus book, and another pair condemning the Da Vinci Code’s place in Crime. I smile in relief and convince myself it’s a mistake. The French Language section, meanwhile, reads exactly like the Literature section, only in French, quel surprise. There’s some Sartre but I am not in an existential mood, so I pick up Eric Ambler’s Epitaphe pour un Espion (Epitaph for a Spy)- did I mention I could read and speak French like a pretentious git? I also take a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Le Bois de la Nuit (Nightwood), a cult book by the American expatriate who like so many other American writers fell in with the French crowd. The copy is complete with T.S. Eliot’s introduction, also in French…
Soon I find myself heading upstairs and, with the books I already have plus one other (a Cynthia Ozick hardback from the Hardback section- The Bear Boy), my arms are starting to ache from the heavy box. Reading generally exercises the mind only, after all. But I walk upstairs into the musty Rare and Old section. And by old, they mean old– those brown papered hardbacks with solid claret covers emblazoned with faux gold writing, fiction that resembles encyclopaedia books. But I find some things that seem worth holding onto: an old 1957 copy of Scandals of Sydney Town by Frank Clune, complete with vibrant Gone-with-the-Wind-style dust jacket and ye-olde illustrations (by Virgil Reilly). A crime lover would love this one, as it delves into the Mount Rennie Case, the Dean Case and The Last Scandals of Sydney. The opening page has a great 1950s map of Sydney to complete the $12 buy.
My eye is then caught by one word: Octopussy, and I slide out a 1966 copy of Ian Fleming’s Octopussy and The Living Daylights. It’s a thin, hardcover book published by Jonathan Cape for $12, and it fits neatly into my box. And lastly, as my hands get dirtier and dirtier- the mark of a book lover- I spot an ancient (1953) copy of Ambler’s The Schirmer Inheritance published by William Heinemann. Of all the other books I collect this smells the mustiest, kind of like my grandmother’s old bike shed. Again, compared to the books downstairs the price for this one has quadrupled to $12, but I obviously don’t mind- Ambler usually costs more anyway. A group of teens meanwhile gather around the old books and remark on their supposed Harry Potter-like resemblance. Another girl shows her friends a Francis Bacon book, bewilderingly excited, while the others argue about the pronunciation of Dr. Seuss. I am in no position to care. Though at least they are reading something.
The musty smell eventually gets to me and I am weary of the time, having to meet up with a friend back at my own university, so I head back downstairs. On my way I scoop up two more books in the Short Story collection, Will Self’s Grey Area and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Séance and Other Stories. Singer’s work has been the subject of a biography (The Brother’s Singer) by another great yet lamentably lesser-known author, Clive Sinclair (not the scientist but the Somerset Maugham award winning author of Hearts of Gold). I pick it up out of curiosity and trust in Sinclair’s taste.
My left wrist is twitching both from carrying the box and the writing I was doing in the morning before heading over to the university. I collect my books (20 all up if you count Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy– recommended by one of my supervisors as the only decent thing the author has written), and head over to the counter where I’m charged around $70 for the whole lot. I manage to avoid the guy in the cap on my way out. I resist the urge to come back in, despite the woman with the mike announcing that this is the last UNSW book fair. Whether she meant for the year or forever, I’m not sure, but I got the feeling it was the done-and-dusted type affair.
The fair is open til 2pm Sunday, where you are welcome to come and fill a box with whatever’s remaining for $10, or a smaller box for $5. It is tempting, given that there were still some books I was undecided on. It would be nice to get another round of 20 books for $10, but at this point my room is developing small towers of books all over the place to the point of becoming a safety hazard. Perhaps I should have bought another bookcase instead of my piano…