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Shelf Reflection is a monthly series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of our featured First Book Club authors.

This month’s reflection is from Eleanor Gordon-Smith, whose debut book Stop Being Reasonable (NewSouth) is our April pick. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and join us at Readings Carlton on 23 May for a free in-conversation event with the author! 

What are you currently reading?

I’m basically always reading Annie Dillard’s epileptic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a non-fiction memoir that’s impossible to describe but is, loosely speaking, ‘nature essays’. Only they’re not nature essays, they’re holographic terrifying portraits of the utter indifference of the planet and a masterclass in vivid description. It’s kind of terrifying to watch Dillard work. It gives me a writer’s version of vertigo, watching her try to pull off what she sets out to. But she always does. And always in the sparest possible prose. (Not like this paragraph. Sorry Annie.)

Borrowed or bought?

Bought online, in fact mailed to myself at an extremely far-away beach house because I’d forgotten any other half-decent reading material. My companions scoffed at the thought that a book could possibly arrive by post before the trip was out but it did, and of course I didn’t finish it. I just fell asleep in the sun instead.

What kind of reader are you?

Often I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t have the option to stop reading, because vast amounts of my professional/academic life is spent mired in prose that seems to have the exclusive purpose of making me want to pull my eyeballs out. Academic reading gets you into the habit of reading in a hostile, hole-picking kind of way that I have to consciously turn off when I try to read anything else. It’s not always easy.

Academic reading gets you into the habit of reading in a hostile, hole-picking kind of way that I have to consciously turn off.

Where and when do you like to read?

Horizontally, and when nobody’s telling me that I have to. I re-read books constantly, all the time, over and over and over and over. I’m the same with audiobooks. I think I know the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy mostly off by heart.

What are people surprised to find you enjoy?

Skipping ahead to the last page of detective novels.

What does your book collection look like?

I organise books by colour, for absolutely no reason other than I remember the look of a book before I remember its exact title or author, so it makes it easier to find what I want.

I think I’m a rare kind of author insofar I don’t care that much about owning books – at least, I care vastly less about owning them than I do about having read them. I left a lot of books behind when I moved to the States, and I know some people would experience that as like losing a limb. I didn’t, and in fact it was genuinely surprising to learn that many people are thingity about getting their books back. I tend to dispense mine freely into the universe and consider a loaned book a given-away book.

I was genuinely surprised to learn that many people are thingity about getting their books back. I tend to dispense mine freely into the universe.

The book I have owned for the longest time is The Number Devil, an utterly charming illustrated children’s story that my Dad used to read me. It smuggles a whole lot of maths under the cloak of a cracking plot, and that is the story of how my father stealthily taught me things like Fibonacci’s sequence at bedtime when I was doing my best to be a maths-resistant child.

What’s one book you found critical to the writing of your own book?

Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning, a series of stories about the people who take a philosophy of ‘doing the most good you can’ to some remarkable extremes. Giving kidneys to strangers, that sort of thing. My partner gave me a beautiful hardback copy well before I’d started working on my own book, rightly recognising that it was the kind of work I think matters most.

It’s a master class in the conjoining of narrative and sophisticated philosophy, and MacFarquhar does profiles and interviews unlike just about anyone else out there. The way she turns real non-fiction dialogue into something not that far off genre fiction is utterly idiosyncratic and quite masterful, and she’s one of the only people whose profiles of philosophers & philosophy is widely admired in the academic community. It’s hard to overstate how rare that is. And how difficult.

If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?

I would absolutely not do this, what a terrifying question. Pass. Unless it’s my book, in which case I functionally did live in it, for many months, as all writers must, and it was teeth gnashing and hair-tearing and glorious and I would do every day of it again.


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