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 Linda Spalding, whose novel The Purchase was on Tuesday awarded the Governor General’s literary award for fiction. The historical novel—which follows a young Quaker father who moves his family to Virginia and buys a slave, contrary to Quaker principles—was inspired by Spalding’s ancestors. Her bookshelf is the attic office of her Toronto home, which she shares with her husband Michael Ondaatje. The walls behind her shelf have been painted orange, and her books are nestled alongside approximately a hundred family photographs, and other sundry mementos.
I guess it’s mostly organized by subject. Because I’ve been working on The Purchase for so many years, it’s pretty much all research for that book. And maybe the next one, we’ll see. It’s all very personal to me. It’s not my fiction collection, that’s more in the bedroom. We have books all over the house. We argue about what should be where, and who gets to have more shelf space. But this is the only space that’s mine.
This one book is really neat, I found it in my father’s library. It’s called Pioneer Life in Southwest Missouri. I mentioned it in my acknowledgments, it’s a little later in time than my book, but it’s very personal. This guy actually wrote about his childhood. It’s an old book, and full of things that I had no idea about. For example, nobody wore coats! I didn’t know that. How would you know that? And then of course, Jefferson’s book about Virginia was really quite amazing. There’s a lot slave literature, slave narratives on the top shelf. And there these Foxfire books. They were old books, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, where people went down and did oral histories of the South. So, you know, the old guys would tell you how to make soap, or how to skin a deer. Those were great. I learned all about making a cabin from Foxfire.
This was an odd one. Flash of the Spirit. There’s a little bit in my book about African spiritualism, or religions. And I got a lot of it out of this. Which I just happened to find by accident, like everything else in my life. And then this! This is fun, I’ve got two of these somewhere. These are books about Jonesville, which is where my book takes place. They’re the early collections, the History of Lee County Virginia. And it’s just little things in there that were useful, like what buildings actually existed. Let me see if I can find you a picture, I think the ancestor’s house is in here somewhere… There, that’s the house that Daniel’s son built. So this was fun. It’s mostly too late, but you also get to look at what log cabins look like, and all that kind of jazz. Sweet little life histories of these people.
I have The Aeneid, of course, which I used a lot. I put that in there. The Purchase really isn’t written totally from my family’s history, because I didn’t have any history. All I knew was when Daniel was born, when he died, who his kids were, and that he made this trip, and bought slaves. That’s all I knew, which was not really much to go on. I had no idea what he read.
Oh and this is fun! This is a book of the kind of sayings that the hill people used. The stories that they tell. I can’t remember what I actually used from here, but perhaps a couple of little things. I tried to get Ruth to be a little bit, y’know, Arkansas-ish, because she believes in the devil. Some of these are about the devil. It’s a kind of sensibility.
Here’s another great book. This is a treasure. It’s a beautiful book about how to work with wood, and this is where I got the idea of the apple tree. There’s a lot of stuff about planting and growing apples in here, for some reason. And what different woods were used for. Isn’t that neat? “Radial sections of typical American Woods.” How to make a canoe. It just makes you want to use everything, but you can’t. That’s the hard thing, there’s so much good stuff. It’s very tempting. I probably wont be able to stop collecting material for this project, even though it’s finished. Unless I fall quickly in love with something else.
I collect books that people make, although I don’t really do it very seriously. This is really neat… I think that was what started me off, I bought that in Italy. Now is that… it’s not Penelope, it must be Arachne. Somebody obviously made that. I bought that one at an antique book fair, and another one too. If I were serious, I’d have a nice way of displaying them. I found that these were the things I always wanted to buy. There is a little girl’s book of stitches, from when she was learning to sew. And then there is a thing people used to keep their embroidery threads in, which obviously somebody made. And this is a butcher’s account book from old Japan. They would write down everything they sold, and what money came in. I don’t look at these often. I should have a beautiful glass case, or something. For right now I just know they’re there.
My brother was an architect, and he had a wonderful theory that books really were meant to perform as walls. They didn’t really need to be read. They just needed to be looked at. He didn’t know I was going to turn out to be a writer.
Then there’s my favourite-favourite-favourite book, which I collect copies of. The Ten Thousand Things. It’s a book I think I discovered in… I’m having it reissued by New York Review Books Classics. They’re republishing it, but it was completely out of print. It’s about the Spice Islands, the Malukus, and a woman who is—oh, I just can’t tell you. It’s not about anything, it’s one of those books you just fall into, and you’re never the same. It’s kind of a ghost story, somebody dies, somebody reappears in the garden. It’s heavenly. It’s just wonderful.
Most of our poetry’s downstairs, but there’s a little bit up here, behind all the baby photos. Babies from all the generations. I just talked to my granddaughter about half an hour ago. I told her I had to make a speech, and she said “Am I in it?!” And I told her, “No, because it’s only 250 words, and you would take more than that.” She said, “I think you could’ve squeezed me in.”
I don’t usually cycle books in and out from the other bookshelves in the house. But once I’m done with all of this, I’ll probably get rid of a lot of these. Probably. Unless I fall in love with them, which I sometimes do.