Mark’s Say, July 2020
You might recall that in my last column I contemplated what the impact of the escalating COVID-19 crisis might be and grappled with how we would cope. As we went into lockdown, I was going to read Middlemarch and hoped that some of you might go on a similar journey. Our shops might have been closed but, wonderfully, many of you shifted to buying from us online. It was so heartening, but the number of online orders took my colleagues and me by surprise. Our systems, our creaky software, and Australia Post being overwhelmed made it tricky to keep up with this amazing outpouring of support. Added to this was the fact that COVID had shut down most commercial flights into Australia so we couldn’t supply overseas books if they weren’t already in the country. It took some adjustments, but we did find our feet again and our small web team quickly rose to the challenge. We had two shifts working in our small warehouse social distancing every day of the week. Mistakes happened – one customer ordered a gift for her father and he received the wrong book, but he liked it so much he decided to keep it. I did quite a few deliveries in the local area and often there’d be a chat; one of our most regular and beloved customers even gave me a nice bottle of pinot noir.
As staff worked long hours and exhaustion set in, we all got bit despondent and had to remind ourselves that we’d successfully sent out over 20,000 orders and we’d had hundreds of messages of support and thanks, that our hard work was getting books into the hands of our customers. It was also disconcerting during this time that we had to suspend the Readings Monthly and our public events programmes – two Readings’ activities of which I’m very proud. The Readings Monthly is back and our events programme is, for now, on Zoom, where there have been some very memorable events – Billy Bragg in conversation with Tony Birch and Judith Brett in conversation with Geraldine Doogue spring to mind.
At the beginning of the crisis, many of my publishing colleagues and I thought that this was the end, but we’ve all been amazed by how resilient books have been. Of course, we shouldn’t be; books are incredible sources of entertainment, joy, inspiration and knowledge. How did I go with Middlemarch? Not so well, I’m afraid; those long hours helping send out online orders weren’t conducive.
I have managed three books: Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, a fascinating book that debunks the notion that human beings are inherently selfish. It is long, fascinating and finishes with some very interesting conclusions. Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves also gave me much pleasure, and Judith Brett’s latest Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is fascinating and concerning and should be read by anyone who has an interest in the future of our country.
At the beginning of the lockdown, jigsaw puzzles were one of our most popular items. Since then, the tragic death of George Floyd sparked an avalanche of interest in books about racism, and increased demand for books by and about Australia’s First Nations peoples. It gave me heart that out of these crises some change may come.