Tabatha Southey as Literary Explorer

Emily M. Keeler is a writer and the editor of...

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Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to author an columnist Tabatha Southey, whose famously tart and smart writing delights readers of the Globe and Mail on the regular. Southey’s book shelves are all over her house, which she describes as designed specifically to enable comfortable reading. She shares her home, and her books, with her two children and their dog, Tulip.

It’s just such a random collection of books. This book here, I don’t know if you know this book. Asply Cherry-Garrard was the youngest on the Scott Expedition. He almost died, as did his two companions. He was sent to collect Emperor penguin eggs. George Bernard Shaw, who was his neighbour, actually helped write the book. He almost dies, and the book ends with him taking the emperor penguin eggs to the British museum. And they don’t care about them at all. They’re just stuck away in a box. It’s a beautifully written book, a classic of Antarctic exploration. It’s a book I really love.

I went through a period of my life where I was quite isolated, it was very difficult, and I revisited a childhood thing of reading exploration books. When I think why, I think it was probably just story after story about people where giving up meant not moving, not taking another step forward, and not eating their companion’s leg. And yet, my God, they kept going. So I have actually quite a lot of books about exploration. I didn’t realize, until I really looked at my books, that there’s more books about dying in the Arctic than I think most people have. It’s not a theme, but there’s probably about twelve or fourteen of them here.

I can’t actually read French, but this is a horticultural, natural guide to Paris, with all these maps of all the different areas. I love books with maps in them, too. Which may partly be why I like the Artic thing. I would love to write a book on literary maps one day. I would commission maps. This one goes district by district, and depicts what you might find. A friend of mine bought me that.

This book I love. The girl who became my best friend—I met her when I was 16; she was 18 and living down the hallway from me—she said you have to read this. And she was right. It’s written from the perspective of John Milton’s wife, and it’s a very dark book. People all read the Claudius books, which are great, but I love this book. Graves was sort of before his time, it’s been a while since I read it, but I read it hard. Milton was 33 at the time, and she was 16. It’s great.

I hated The Stranger’s Child, though I’m a big fan of Alan Hollinghurst. I was a big fan of The Swimming-Pool Library, and of course with Thatcher being dead, his other book, The Line of Beauty, is especially good.

I think I’ve read almost everything here. And I’m pretty liberal about lending, you know that bit from Out of Africa where he says something like, If someone doesn’t return a book he’s not my friend anymore, and she says is it worth losing a friend, and he says sometimes—well no no no, I’d rather just give someone the book. I have bookshelves in my two children’s rooms too, which were the first bookshelves I built in the house, because reading was just such a big thing for us. This house is designed around places to read in, and they’re both big readers.

I don’t really read a lot of humour writers. They’re depresssing. I actually prefer to read dry, dark books. A lot of nonfiction. I have a theory that we read a lot of nonfiction now because our education system is all based around process, and people come out if being like Jesus, I just want to know a few actual things. So this is why a book about Salt will be at the top of the best seller’s list.

This one is beautiful. She’s just been nominated for quite a prestigious award. I often sit here and work, so I keep a couple of poetry books close by. It’s almost like a nonsense verse Pale Fire with some W.G. Sebald, and so much memory and desire. It’s melancholy yet often funny.

My brother smuggled this one in from the States, you can’t actually buy it in Canada. It’s about Scientology, and we’re afraid to publish it here, because Scientologists are so litigious. You can’t even legally download it here. Apparently it’s the way our laws are written, it’s easier to sue us here.

Ther are certain books I return to over and over again, just to read passages. The Dubliners. Middlemarch. I’m actually not one of those people that’s particularly fussy about books as objects. I think they are for reading. As you can see, if I thought otherwise I’d probably take better care of them.

This is a book from when I was a child that has been a big influence on me. It’s just a collection of illustration from some of the greats. A lot of them are quite weird and dark. I think I must’ve spent hours and hours with this book as a kid. It really influenced my aesthetic.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s just finding the time, and reading starts to feel like a self indulgence. As a writer, you know that it’s not writing, and there’s guilt. I usually haven’t read the book that everybody’s reading or talking about. I don’t really care about that.


Shelf Esteem runs every week.

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