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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 Ronnie Scott, whose debut novel The Adversary (Hamish Hamilton) is our April pick. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and stay tuned for more on our website and podcast throughout the month! 

Ronnie’s bookshelves. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

I’m 50–100 pages into Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On the Move by Oliver Sacks, The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell and Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho. I don’t normally have four books on the go, but something about this global pandemic is making me anxious.

Borrowed or bought?

These books were acquired used on COVID-preparedness missions from the New International Bookshop under Trades Hall, the Salvos on Smith St, and the Vinnies on Johnston St. The Life of Charlotte Bronte is from my boyfriend’s to-be-read pile, which I have always planned to raid in an appropriate disaster.

I buy comics, art and cookbooks new and most of my fiction old, but I also get new literary fiction from the hold queue at Yarra Libraries, because I am not good at working out whether I’ll like a book or not from reviews and other media, unless I’ve heard about it over time from lots of different sources. I love that they drop the ‘hold available’ notification at 3 in the morning and because I live about 15 minutes from the library, collecting a hold is a nice way to break up a work day.

What kind of reader are you?

Forgetful and capricious. I don’t have any problem dropping something halfway through, I think because I read a lot for teaching and research, so I’m pretty driven by taste and interest when reading for pleasure and try to pay attention to my own wavering preferences. I also mostly don’t go back to books once I’ve abandoned them, but I’ve learned not to skim the endings just in case I do.

I don’t reread, which I’m sure damages me as a writer but I also have other writer habits that might make up for it like underlining and sometimes copying out passages I admire or am confused by. I once re-read some books by a favourite author, Javier Marias, so I could write an essay and I found it really boring, which is strange because I also go into the goldfish zone as soon as I close a book and forget everything.

I mostly don’t go back to books once I’ve abandoned them, but I’ve learned not to skim the endings just in case I do.

This makes me sound like a really terrible and inattentive reader, but I probably read more than anything except sleep or exercise. We’re about to go into lockdown and also winter, which will be a dangerous time, because if I start reading in bed with coffee it’s hard to get up and write. I don’t get any writing done unless it’s in the mornings and if reading edges it out of that space, there’s no clawing it back.

My preference is generally to read in sunny places, but my apartment doesn’t have an outdoor area. One of my neighbours sets up in the parking lot and reads in a deck chair, but to me this is a way of giving up on life. I try to spend a lot of time in parks and pools in summer and sometimes read in bars and beer gardens as well.

What does your book collection look like?

My apartment is also tiny so I have to organise books basically by shape. Floor and wall space are both at a premium, so after trying lots of weird shelving arrangements I had custom shelves cut and designed to fit the space, which is very bourgeois and embarrassing but that is what we’re dealing with. I used to arrange my books alphabetically or by colour in small doses, but when they’re also arranged by height it just looks super strange.

I have a thing for Virago Modern Classics with forest green spines from the period when they also had a really chunky font. I’ve found some of my favourite novelists by reading that era of that imprint, including some I’d never have read elsewhere like Martha Gellhorn. I put in a lot of leisure hours at used bookstores near my house and I get really excited when I find a book by Dial Press, who licensed the Virago titles in the USA and have the same chunky font but black covers and spines.

I don’t get any writing done unless it’s in the mornings, and if reading edges it out of that space, there’s no clawing it back.

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

Positive Images: Gay Men, HIV/AIDS and the Culture of Post-Crisis, which was written by a friend and colleague, Dion Kagan. This one particular character in my novel was always HIV-positive, but when I was about halfway through the drafting process, there was suddenly more public discussion about HIV/AIDS thanks to PrEP becoming widely available, a slew of historical reckonings with the AIDS crisis, and then public discussion of gay and queer politics at a suddenly fevered level thanks to same-sex marriage and Safe Schools.

I’d always known that queer theory was a descendant of AIDS scholarship, but I hadn’t engaged with it sufficiently closely, and when Dion sent me an early copy of his book it really cracked me open.

I realised the extent to which HIV/AIDS had shaped my own way of looking at the world and experiencing life, and Dion’s book prompted really interesting questions about metaphor and story in the post-antiretroviral world. When existing HIV metaphors have such strong existing meanings and the storytelling often has such roots in historical crisis, it seemed interesting to experiment with writing decisions that accommodated what Dion called ‘post-crisis culture’ and that changed the whole path of the book.

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

I love the world of Patricia Highsmith. Maybe I wouldn’t want to live in one single book, and I definitely wouldn’t want to personally know the author, but to me it’s really rewarding and interesting to spend time with her mix of sociopathy, grubbiness, happiness, and luxury. That’s just not an aesthetic or emotional matrix you get to encounter very often, so every time I return to that world I find it unsettling and inspiring.

The Adversary is available now from your local independent bookseller.