Everybody in Woolgoolga, just north of Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales – or Woopi as the locals call it – was complaining of the humidity. So a visit to the relative cool of a second-hand bookshop for me and my four-year-old daughter, while the older kids were in the local library doing school work, was tantalising in more ways than one. The affable proprietress, alerted to our presence by a wolf-whistling plaster frog at the door, greeted us with a smile.
The books were nestled among sewing patterns, spools of thread and balls of wool – another part of the business – and were relatively few in number. But what they lacked in abundance was made up in diversity.
There were the usual romance novels, which occupied an entire wall of the shop, as well as a few large-format cooking, craft, self-help and cricket-technique books. Interspersed between these was some surprisingly good fiction. The ubiquitous Hardy and Brontës – no doubt jettisoned by grateful school-leavers – but also some Tolstoy, Thomas Berger (Little Big Man), Somerset Maugham, a Complete Plays of Oscar Wilde and, much to my joy, a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a book for which I had been keeping my eye out for some time. It was only $5, a Pan paperback and in excellent condition.
The family bookshelf when I was growing up was dominated (or so it seems in retrospect) by Australian and British fiction and, apart from the essential Mark Twains, Moby Dick and Last of the Mohicans, contained relatively few books by American authors. John Steinbeck was a notable exception, and my parents owned most of his works written prior to him being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. My suspicion for novels with American themes was swept away by my first entry into the vivid, humorous and idiosyncratic world of Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row. It not only spurred me on to read many of Steinbeck’s other novels, but it also paved the way for Hemmingway, Stein, Henry and Arthur Miller,Vidal andVonnegut, amongst many others. It revealed a new landscape: one that was demonstratively not Australian or British, and one that I am grateful to have explored at that time.
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