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September 25, 2016

My Literary History, via the Victoria College Book Sale


I must have gone to the Victoria College Book Sale when I was student there (and when I worked at the Victoria College Library, which the book sale supports) but I don’t really remember it. My appetite for books then was more theoretical than practiced, and I didn’t yet have tastes of my own. When pressed, I would have told you that I admired Margaret Atwood, but looking back, I don’t think I had any idea what she was up to in her work. I was still reading the books I thought I was supposed to be reading back then, buying battered paperbacks with familiar names—Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence. They were always men. It makes total sense now that I didn’t have very much fun reading these books, or even remember them. I recall reading The Years, by Virginia Woolf in my undergraduate years, and finding it all very difficult to decipher. I remember reading it again in the months before I went to graduate school, and being able to make sense of it, and being oh so relieved—perhaps I was finally getting smarter.

It was in the years I was out of school that I finally figured out who I was as a reader. Living in England helped, with its omnipresent literary culture, but after that I lived in Japan, and that helped too. To go from being overwhelmed by print culture to being functionally illiterate was amazing, and having so few books available to me—we read whatever we could get our hands on. I don’t know that there has ever been a more important bookshop for me ever than Wantage Books in Kobe, where I first found Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and also Carol Shields Various Miracles. It occurs to me that as a reader and I writer, I was actually born there.

I returned to Toronto in 2005, to attend graduate school at the University of Toronto, and I returned also to my job at the EJ Pratt Library. We were so poor then, as I attended school, and Stuart waiting for his permanent residency, without which he was unable to work. When I went to the Victoria College Book Sale in 2005, I remember knowing I probably shouldn’t. We didn’t have the money for it. And me being who I am, and books being what they are, I ended up spending $14 (—this was the half-price Monday, I think) which was a terrific indulgence and one I appreciated so much. I wrote about it here, and reading that list now, these are all books that meant a great deal to me—Penelope Lively and Hilary Mantel (pre-Wolf Hall!). Over the next few years, I would buy everything from Margaret Drabble’s back catalogue at the Victoria College book sale, which fundamentally has been my gateway to major (mostly British) women writers. Laurie Colwin too, and Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Anita Brookner and Doris Lessing

2006 was the year I bought Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which my friend Kim handed to me saying, “You’ve got to read this,” wholly unaware that the blurb on the back by Amy Tan said precisely that this was the type of books that drives one to do such things. I was no longer poor by 2007, so bought about 20 books. In 2008, I purchased an actual tower—with Penelopes Fitzgerald, Lively and Farmer.

By 2009, I realized I’d bought all the books available at Half Price Monday and would have to up the stakes a bit. It was also the first year I went with a baby and the year I bought my first Barbara Pym—Excellent Women. In 2010, I left my baby at home, and went determined to buy books I really wanted to read and not ones that would simply gather dust on the shelf—that was also the year I bought Bronwen Wallace’s story collection, which has never been dusty.

2011 was the most fantastic year—Rachel Cusk, Isabel Huggan (who I hadn’t even read yet!), Lynn Coady, Caroline Adderson, Ali Smith, and more. I missed the Vic Book Sale in 2012—we were in Alberta for my sister’s wedding. It’s possible I missed it again in 2013, with a small baby in my life and an awareness that more books was the last thing I needed. I was perhaps still trying to get through the books I’d purchased two years before. But my small baby grew, and in 2014, she screamed the entire time I was browsing, which solved the problem of too many books (and not because I cut my browsing short, but just because the screaming baby made it hard to concentrate)—that was the year I bought just two books!

Last year I got to go child-free, a few hours stolen while Harriet and Iris were at school—that was when I got a box of Narnia and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (which I would turn out to love, against all my expectations, but in accordance with everyone else’s).

And now this year, which is the whole point of this post. Believe it or not, I did not actually intend to write my autobiography via my history of the Victoria College Book Sale, but that seems to be just what I’ve done. And this year was a very good haul. Penelope Fitzgerald seems to be the one author left whose books I was discover via the book sale—I got Innocence and The Means of Escape. The Mysterious Case of Leon, by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game is so beloved by me and I reread it in December when I was sick. This novel is meant to be quite different, but it’s full of her characteristic illustrations (she wrote wacky picture books during the ‘sixties, and did you know she designed the original cover of A Wrinkle In Time?) and I think I’ll like it.

I got The New House, by Lettice Cooper, because a Persephone Book for $5 is a deal not to be missed, though I know nothing about Lettice, except that Jilly Cooper married her nephew and wrote the intro to this edition. The History of Little Orphan Annie, by Bruce Smith, was a STEAL for $1, and perhaps a book that had been waiting its whole life to get to me, and this is why I love book sales, the serendipity. Mother Superior is the first book by the excellent Saleema Nawaz, and I wanted to buy this book when I visited her in Montreal this spring, but it wasn’t on the shelf, so I was glad to get this copy. And finally, Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay, because the number of amazing writers and readers who testify to his greatness are legion. I think this one will be fun.

The Victoria College Book Sale seems as much apart of my autumn as the leaves changing colour, or the kids heading back to school. A pleasure in recent years is encountering friends there without even having made plans to do so. This year, we followed up our book browsing by heading out for lunch together, and admiring all new acquisitions, revelling in the goodness of books.

2 thoughts on “My Literary History, via the Victoria College Book Sale”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    “Revelling in the goodness of books” … and I revel in the pleasure of reading you.

  2. Kristine Morris says:

    This years Vic book sale is the first I’ve missed in years. I used to come away with a box or a couple of really heavy bags. My sister comes in from out of town to join me.

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