Reading the spines
Before I fell in love with books as individual objects I fell in love with bookstores. This happened in 1991 when I was in my early twenties and living in Dublin, a time in which I had the great fortune of living in a city with two incredible bookstores on the same street: the old Waterstones at 7 Dawson Street and the new Waterstones – Hodges Figges – at number 56.
For a Canadian used to frequenting bookshops in strip malls or in fluorescent-lit shops that seemed to resemble real estate offices these bookstores were a marvel: not only were they bright, high-ceilinged and wood-shelved, they were also bursting with books, so many books that there were staircases with ornate banisters and lovely closet-sized nooks on every floor – a reader’s paradise.
There were days, and I swear this is true, when I would read the spines of the whole fiction section in the Hodges and Figgis (moving diligently from A to Z) and then go across the street and do the same at the Waterstones. This seems ridiculous now but it was the only way I knew to find new books: there was no proper internet then, I hadn’t a clue that trade magazines existed and I wasn’t a dedicated news reader so I didn’t follow reviews. Instead, names, titles, and fonts dictated my reading, which is to say that if the name/title/font interested me I would slip the book off the shelf and investigate further. This is, one sunny summer in Dublin, how I found Anne Enright’s first short story collection The Portable Virgin. I mean, what a great title. And the first page: sold. Here was an energetic and unique voice, an Irish voice that mentioned Canada (!) on page 12. I almost ran home with the book.
Looking back now from this point in my career where I, like most writers, have become familiar with the intricacies of publishing and marketing – I think there’s something wonderfully naïve about reading every book spine in fiction from A to Z with equal weight and measure, with nothing but my intuition to make me slide a book out from its station. Of course, I eventually developed favourites: loving Anne Enright’s stories led me to the Scottish writer Janice Galloway’s first collection Blood. Minerva had published Enright so I developed a special interest during my A to Z perusals in books with the simple line drawing of the goddess on the spine, diligently pulling each Minerva title off the shelf to consider it. Eventually I recognized other publishers whose books suited me and over my two years of bookshelf reading I’d tend toward those imprints.
One of the things I remember most about those years was how I always kept my eye out for the next Enright book. How I’d get excited approaching the E’s incase she’d written another. This feeling stayed with me so much that a decade later when I was a writer coming into my own and someone asked me what I thought success as a writer would look like for me (‘The Governor General’s Award? The Booker?’ they asked) I said, success would be that one reader standing at the H’s in a good bookshop, looking hopefully for the new book I’d written.