Leslie Shimotakahara on Forgetting Books In Berlin

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 shelves belong to Leslie Shimotakahara, a recovering academic and the author of The Reading List, an intimate memoir about the power of literature to reveal to ourselves who we are. Her shelves are shared with her partner, Chris, and take up the wall of their home office. The light diffuses perfectly through the space, and there is at least a small stack of books arranged on almost every surface in view.

This is where I do my writing, and this is where most of our books are. They’re all jumbled together. We moved in together three years ago, and I’ve realized, just looking over my book collection, that a lot of my books, or books that I thought I had, are actually gone. I’ve had to unload them at various points along the way. I’ve moved so much over the past 10 years or so, from grad school, and I spent a year and a half in Berlin, and then there was research in Paris, and I taught in Halifax afterwards. Just at every stage, shipping books got more expensive. I had to let go of some. So I think a good portion of these are Chris’, and I’m like, Oh, where’s my copy of Absalom, Absalom!? There are certain books, like that one, that I’ve bought two or three times, and they just end up dog-eared and left in an apartment in Halifax or something.

Have you read The Marriage Plot [by Jeffrey Eugenides]? There’s that great scene at that party, where the main character is browsing someone’s bookshelves and gets picked up.

When we first moved in together, we had more of a system. We were going to have a poetry shelf, a section for my Canadian and American literatures, but then Chris, being an architect, is very colour- and size-conscious. His other instinct is to group things in that way, like these Penguins. And now I think it’s just a hodgepodge. I tend to really pick at things, I pull books off the bookshelves, and just read things here and there over a few days, and then just put them back in another spot.

The House of Mirth was important to my dissertation. This is the only first edition I have. An ex-boyfriend bought it for my birthday, which was totally sweet, but I’m not really a first-edition person—they always make me feel like I need to wash my hands before reading them. I guess that was another sign that I wasn’t meant to be an academic; not into first editions, not into footnotes. I was a professor for a couple of years, and discovered that it wasn’t my calling and pretty much hightailed it. But Edith Wharton was, and is, an important novelist. She fascinated me, particularly during my PhD years, and I was just very interested by the depiction of old New York at a time when it had already been eclipsed by the nouveau riche, and New York as a modern American city.

Toronto has something of a literary history too, like in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and Michael Ondaatje’s. I guess it has primarily to do with the fact that Toronto is just a younger city, [but] I don’t think it’s any less fodder for the imagination and for writers. What was particularly fascinating to writers of Wharton’s generation was the clash between different cultural groups in the late 19th and early 20th century. I was actually part of Diaspora Dialogues, which is an organization that is trying to cultivate a Toronto-based aesthetic, and I think it also just happens naturally, as Canadian authors, or authors from elsewhere, choose to write about Toronto.

How do you feel about The Hours? I love that novel. I love Mrs. Dalloway, so I just thought it was a really brilliant adaptation of—or engagement with—Mrs. Dalloway.

It shows the timelessness of that novel, and how it influences generations of readers, how it lingers on in the literary and cultural imagination. There’s a whole afterlife of cultural relevance. My book has a similar structure, in a way. It’s very much a hybrid book, written explicitly after I left academia—it was about the personal rather than critical engagement with novels that interested me. During my academic training, I was taught that characters in novels are not “real people,” that we were meant to study these texts through discourse as text, as examples of different cultural movements. But for me, in undertaking my memoir, I wanted to move back to an earlier form of reading. When I read as a child, I engaged with characters in novels on the level of friends, or even soul mates. So that kind of thinking was very much with me when I was writing my book.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Good Morning, Midnight. I think Jean Rhys is such an amazing stylist. The voice of her characters—it really resonates with me. I’ve been reading some of her other early novels, like Voyage in the Dark. I almost wish she ventured a little bit further away from autobiographical material, rather than these flâneuse types who kind of drunkenly wander through Paris. While that worked brilliantly well in Good Morning, Midnight, it does get a little bit repetitive. Though of course, many decades later, she wrote her masterwork, Wide Sargasso Sea. Who knows what else she might have written if she hadn’t had that 40-year period. There are many different ways to go about writing. I suppose you just have to sort of do what comes naturally.

Lucky Girls was, as I recall, a quite enjoyable collection of short stories. I think I bought it in Berlin, at a used bookstore. I think a lot of the stories take place in India. I read it during the period where I was in Berlin, falling out of love with my dissertation. I was supposed to be getting all of this work done, writing three chapters in the year that I was there—which might not sound like a lot, but they were academic articles. Instead, I ended up wandering the streets, going to galleries and plays, buying books at all of the English used bookstores, and becoming friends with a lot of the expats there. My mind rapidly began to wander from my dissertation to other creative writing projects that had been percolating in my head for a number of years. In a way, to be perfectly honest, looking back at that period, there’s a part of me that, in retrospect, kind of thinks, Oh, Leslie, you should really have just dropped out of grad school, thrown in the towel on your PhD and stayed in Berlin. There were a lot of people doing that in the mid-2000s—tons of Canadians, actually. It was such a cheap city to live in, and that alone makes it very suitable for living an artistic life. But I guess if I had done that, I wouldn’t have had my short-lived academic career, which gave me the material for my memoir.

Shelf Esteem appears every Tuesday.

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