|Jan/Feb 2019 Reviews & Interviews|
I Can't Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 240 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76052 945 1.
Many years ago, as a very green university student about to enrol in Philosophy 100, I went into the university bookshop and asked for a book by Des Karts. "Ah Yes," said the shop assistant, "René Descartes." He pronounced it in the correct French way, and keeping a straight face, he went off and came back with Principles of Philosophy. I was lucky the assistant was not Elias Greig, or I might have ended up in this book of "anecdotes from the other side of the bookshop counter."
Greig writes in his introduction that he began the book "For my own sanity and as a small creative outlet between part-time work and a Ph.D thesis." He works in a Sydney bookshop inside a busy shopping center, and he describes his book as a collection of "weird, sometimes appalling, sometimes touching and hopefully funny anecdotes about our bizarre historical moment." Actually, it is a weird, sometimes appalling, etc., collection of funny anecdotes about his customers, and quite what this means for "our bizarre historical moment" is never clear. Today, after all, is no different to any other era—people, everywhere, behave in funny ways and always have.
The results of Greig's bookshop research reveal, amongst other people, "a woman in pearl earrings and a purple tracksuit" (dubbed "Pearl Tracksuit" by Greig) who wants "a children's picture book about the Holocaust." A clearly distressed lady dubbed "Misery Fringe" wanting a book about divorce. And an elderly man with puckered lips ("Old Pucker") who noticing fountain pens on display which take "real ink," confides that he used to use school ink to poison his mother's aspidistra. Along the way, we meet a "medley of weary females" having a "Fun Time Shopping for Men," harassed mothers, and children who mistreat the books or give Greig a serious lecture on sharks.
The style of the book reflects Greig's daily encounters with "the idle, the elderly, the lonely, the romantic and the legitimately mad," and with those who want to drop off their children "Just for an hour, they're no trouble" or who declare, after Greig has done the internet research for them, that they will now buy the book on Amazon. Entries are brief, his exchanges with customers neatly encapsulated, and although he sometimes assumes that all his readers will be well-read and enjoy jokes about, for example, Samuel Beckett or "Goose-Tev flow-BERT," most of the entries are easy reading and often very funny.
Elias's responses to his customers, as he notes, range from nodding sagely, "tight-jawed approval" and delight, to helpless laughter. And the cartoon-like illustrations by Phillip Marsden add to the humour and include one of Greig himself.
Seeing the benign-looking man in this picture and aware that he is secretly recording his customers' foibles, I am tempted, for my own sanity, and as revenge for my own embarrassing experience in that university bookshop, to copy Greig's idea and his style and begin a book on my own encounters with book writers, some of whom may also be book sellers:
Wednesday 3.30 p.m.
Bearded Bookman (bespectacled, neatly bearded, friendly-looking, hiding a notebook for documenting funny customer encounters, smiling benignly): Hi there! How can I help?
Me (nervously): Can I ask you something without you writing it in your book?
Bearded Bookman (looming over me and looking as if he may not be joking): Only if you promise to write me a good review.