When I borrowed Utopian Man by Lisa Lang from Stanmore Library, I was pleased by the book’s newness. I fancied that I was the first one to borrow it (once I would have been able to tell by the due date stamp – alas, barcodes have erased such pleasures), so crisp it appeared.
One of the things I like best about library books is imagining where they have been. Sometimes there are clues, in stains, creases and left-behind bookmarks, but never anything that gives much of a sense of whose hands they have been in before yours. These books have inhabited rooms and gone on journeys. This particular book, however, looked as if it had yet to be read. It was on the display rack among other Australian prize-winning novels, and I like to think I will be the first in a long series of readers.
To start the book on its life of multiple readers, I took Utopian Man on a journey to Japan. Is it wrong to take library books out of the country? It feels a bit naughty, but also thrilling. This book was going to be my holiday novel, although I rarely read much when I’m travelling, focussing instead on writing in my journal and over-studying of the relevant guidebook and maps. I can never seem to look at the maps enough.
The journey Utopian Man took began on a plane, where it was read with some distractions: the conversation of the men sitting behind me, who in an hour or so covered every possible man-topic. I was so entranced by their thoroughness that I wrote the topics down on a pink post-it note:
vague business talk
Scotty “I don’t rate his ability” and “I don’t think he’s hard enough”
This post-it I will leave in the back of Utopian Man, among the plentiful blank pages at the end of the book (it was not until my own book was printed I found out why this occurs. It’s not for notes, or to make the book appear longer, it is because books are printed in sections of a particular number of pages. Unless your book has the right amount of pages to be a multiple of this number, there will be blank pages left), to amuse or bemuse those who borrow it after me.
Just before I left Sydney and before I started reading the book, I received a letter from one of my zine friends. In her letter she recommended a book that she thought I would particularly enjoy… Utopian Man by Lisa Lang! The coincidence was satisfying.
Utopian Man is a novel by Melbourne writer Lisa Lang, based on the life of E.W Cole, who owned Coles Book Arcade, the vast bookstore that was one of the main attractions of late nineteenth, and early twentieth century Melbourne. You may know his Cole’s Funny Picture Books, eccentric volumes of verse and pictures that remain quite unlike any other books before or since. Cole was a passionate man about his beliefs and his obsessions, the main one of which was his Book Arcade being a pleasurable and edifying place for the people of Melbourne. Therefore the arcade was full of amusements, as well as the multitude of books that people could sit and read without being asked to buy (making it rather like a vast library), there was a fernery, monkeys, a tin chicken that laid tin eggs with treats inside them, a Chinese tea salon, a band, and regular celebrations. Cole was a master of gimmicks and publicity, famous for his unorthodox newspaper articles and advertisements which promoted the Arcade and his ideas of racial equality, temperance, and morality.
When I first came across a Cole’s Funny Picture book as a teenager, I thought it was all a wacky fiction: surely this book arcade could never have existed. But exist it did, in middle of Melbourne city, with a giant rainbow painted above the sign. The building, sadly, was demolished in the 1930s, after the closure of the arcade in 1929.
It must be difficult to inhabit the thoughts of a person such as Edward Cole, especially with enough confidence to write in his voice for the length of a novel. Yet, while the conversation about the cars and men droned on behind me, I found that it worked: I was inside Cole’s head, and seeing things through his eyes.
I kept reading throughout my journey, waiting in the Gold Coast airport, as an announcement came over the intercom that all flights to and from Sydney were cancelled for the rest of the day – we’d escaped just in time! – and kept reading as the plane flew up away from Australia, and over Guam, as I saw on the Flight Path screen, where the too large cartoon plane flies over the map.
While I was in Japan Utopian Man remained by my bedside, but the shift between the humid Kyoto streets with wooden houses and tiny old ladies tending small gardens presided over by swollen-bellied tanukis and the book-world of Mr Cole was too great, and I read little while I was away. The book became buried under a pile of shopping bags, flyers, receipts from convenience stores, and crumpled maps with attractions like “Toto Superspace” circled in pink pen.
It was only when I got home that I finished reading Utopian Man, having taken it with me to Japan and safely back. I read it lying on the living room floor, in front of the op shop heater with only one setting still working, on a picnic blanket (to hide the dreadful carpet), eating Lindt balls and listening to the Pastels. If you ever hear me complaining, remind me: this is not a bad life!
I was now swept up in the story and couldn’t stop reading until it was finished. A smudge from a finger that held a Lindt ball just a little too long appeared on page 101, which I tried my best to wipe off, before thinking about how other people will see it and be repulsed/wonder at who read the book before. Although I was enjoying the book, sometimes I had trouble going along with the poetic descriptions, a common problem for me these days. Sensual writing can send my hackles up, particularly if it doesn’t make sense. The one sentence in Utopian Man that made me put the book down momentarily was this: Beneath him the sheets are twisted and damp, they smell of salt marsh and hot buttered pastry. How, please tell me, can sheets smell like hot buttered pastry unless you’ve stowed your breakfast in there?
I took the book back to my own bed to finish it – the sheets smelling of Earth’s Choice laundry liquid and dust. Apart from the sometimes over sensual description, my objection to which is mostly due to my personal stylistic preferences, it is a good novel and worthy of its success. It excited my imagination: once I had finished it, I was curious to know more about Cole and his arcade. The only picture I’d seen of it was the shot of the interior printed in the Cole’s Funny Picture books, so the next day I went to the internet for images. Although I didn’t make a thorough search, I was disappointed, and sought out a book from the university library: “Cole of the Book Arcade”, by Cole Turnley (Edward Cole’s grandson), from 1974. This ragged old hardback was retrieved from the metal caskets of Macquarie University library’s automatic retrieval system (more on this in a future post) and now sits on my desk, open at a page which pictures the Cole Family in the Fernery. I will now subject this book to the indignities of the scanner, and show you the place where many good people of Melbourne visited to eat lunch in the late nineteenth century.
A great improvement on a food court. If your city has a fernery, get thee to it for a picnic immediately! You will feel very Victorian: sandwiches and tea is the best choice of food. This photo shows the Cole family, as you may be able to read underneath – Cole is the chap with the big white beard. Having read a book that inhabited his thoughts, it was strange to see photographs of him, and stranger still to think how I had been inside an imagined, yet very convincing, version of his thoughts.
Tomorrow, I will return Utopian Man by Lisa Lang to the Marrickville Library system, with post it notes in the back and one small chocolate fingerprint, it having travelled thousands of miles away from its place on the library shelf, only to return, for someone else to pick it out and take it away again.