Steven Beattie’s Readerly Ambitions

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 editor, National Post books columnist, and critic Steven W. Beattie. As the reviews editor of Canada’s book industry magazine, Quill and Quire, and proprietor of the long beloved literary blog That Shakespearean Rag, Beattie is an extremely dedicated reader. His books are tightly packed onto various shelves in the apartment he shares with his fiance, Sarah Dunn. Dunn pointed out that her books were once organized alphabetically and by genre, and they both laughed as Beattie admitted that his encroaching book storing habits had overtaken her system, which sounded to me rather like love.

Organization is, how does one say… nonexistent. Books tend to get thrown wherever. These shelves over here started as overflow. Now there’s a section for Canadian poetry. Every shelf has more books behind the front ones. So I guess if there is any organization, it’s that the stuff in the front is newer than the stuff at the back. This is the problem with just throwing books on the shelf. Many of them are just pushed to the back and forgotten. At some point I’d like to go back and find out exactly what I’ve got back there.

These books are so beautiful. My desire is at some point to have all of this be New York Review Classics, because I love them. I don’t think I’ve been disappointed by one of them yet. I have this fantasy of taking a sabbatical year where I would read nothing except New York Review books.

I acquire books in so many different ways. People send stuff for the website, and for Quill. I buy all sorts of stuff I’m interested in at the time, and then the minute it’s on the shelf it’s like, forget it. I have to stop purchasing books and just start reading stuff I’ve already bought. I did a purge a few years back, but nature abhors a vacuum. Every time a hole in the shelf opens up, it seems to get filled instantaneously, within the week.

This one kind of made me rethink my approach to reviewing. I have been accused of being a very snarky reviewer, with some justification. He makes some good arguments in favour of toning that down, and toning down the sense of personal attack—which I’ve never been much for. The other literary criticism is probably in the office. A lot of reference material I keep handy by my desk, though there is still some out here. I’ve got Northrop Frye on the same shelf as a lot of tech books, which is a weird juxtaposition and I don’t know how that happened. Half of that shelf is literary criticism and the other half is tech, and then there’s this one book about the woman who had an affair with her father. Which seems to be an outlier; I don’t know how that ended up there. Needless to say, I still haven’t read it.

I actually bought this fucker twice, because I saw it a couple of months in the bookstore, and I thought, oh, I like Bukowski, I should read this. There’s a newer edition of this, so I bought it, and I was looking through these shelves for something completely different, and I realized I already had this, and had stopped reading—you can see where the spine is bent? I stopped reading about there because I was so bored by it. So now I have two copies of this book that’s absolutely, utterly, fucking boring and that I’ll probably never finish.

I would love to be able to re-read more than I do. There are a couple of books, like The Great Gatsby, I’ll reread over and over and over again. That’s one that I can’t even pick up, if I start it—you know that South Park episode where Cartman can’t sing the first couple of lines of “Come Sail Away” by Styx without having to sing the whole song? I’m the same way with The Great Gatsby; if I read the first line I’m gonna have to read the whole book. And the same is true with Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor.

I really do believe you should read not only the things you agree with, but the things you violently disagree with. If you only read the things you know you agree with you end up with a very narrow world view. This book is infuriating, by the way. It’s absolutely infuriating. In some cases you’ll be pleasantly surprised, like when I read Ezra Levant’s book, Shakedown, on Human Rights Commissions, and censorship in Canada. I was actually surprised at how frequently I found myself nodding in agreement with him.

This is a prized possession. The first time I met Patrick Crean he was taking Gordon Lish around at Harbourfront. Lish, I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Lish? He edited Raymond Carver, and a lot of people would argue that he was responsible for Carver’s style. I wasn’t familiar with him then. It was 1996. I introduced myself as Steve Beattie, and he said, Well, there’s an actor named Beattie, but I can’t remember his first name. He was trying to remember for our entire conversation. And so when he inscribed the book, he was like—it took a while for me to work out what this says, but it says, Please know that my favourite Beattie next to Steve Beattie is the wispy-voiced actor of the name. I still don’t know who he’s referring to.

I love having signed books. Even though I’ve worked in the industry for over two decades I’m still a fanboy at heart. I love getting books signed and meeting authors. It’s kind of cheesey, but…When I met Marianne Faithful, she scared the shit out of me. I was so enamoured with her in the ‘80s and 90s, she was one of my heroes. Still is. But it was the only time where I met somebody that I really really admired and that had a huge influence on my life, and when I got up to talk to her… all of my eloquence disappeared, and I was just like… Blahhhhhhg! I Steve. You know. But she was super sweet, and has one of the most magnetic smiles I’ve ever seen, which is quite something when you consider all she’s been through in her life.

I acquire all sorts of things with these grand ambitions that I’ll be able to read them. Like, I got this three volume edition of 2666 the weekend it was reviewed in the Globe and Mail back in 2000—whenever it was first published, and it’s still in the cellophane. One day. I have read some of his other, shorter books in the interim. But 2666 seems like an undertaking. I don’t tend to do well with long novels. With some of them, it’s kind of like—you know how when you’re waiting for a bus, and you’ve waited for, say, 45 minutes? And you think, Okay, well now I’m just going to wait for as long as it takes because I’ve invested all this time in it. That’s kind of the same thing with some of these long novels. You’re like, I’ve come this far, I don’t care if I’m hating it, I’m going to finish it. But I’ve never finished Infinite Jest either. And I’ve tried three times, but it just hasn’t happened. Why’d he put the boring stuff right up front?

Shelf Esteem runs every week

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