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

This month’s reflection comes from Sam George-Allen, whose debut essay collection Witches: What Women Do Together (Vintage) is our March pick. Join us at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library on 27 March for a free in-conversation event with the author.

Sam George-Allen’s book collection. “I kind of enjoy the ritual of having to hunt for the book I want.” Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

Right now I’m listening to How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, and loving it. Pollan is investigating the history and future of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psylocibin (magic mushrooms). I’ve just got up to the bit where he’s begun to take his ‘journeys’ on psychedelics with the help of a number of guides, who operate in the grey area at the edges of the illegal drug trade and legitimate psychotherapy. His writing and approach is so non-judgemental and generous – he’s a bloke in his early 60s who doesn’t have a strong spiritual or religious personality but is driven by a profound curiosity – and he approaches recollecting his experiences with a transparency that I really admire.

Borrowed or bought?

This is one of my free Audible downloads. I heard about it from a friend after we started talking about the peculiar genre of drug writing (particularly how all the fun or adventurous drug narratives we could think about were written by male authors). I’m thinking about buying the print edition so I can go through it with a highlighter.

What kind of reader are you?

I tend to always have an audiobook on the go because I do a lot of driving, as well as at least one print book lying around (I’ve just started David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding which is perfect for sporadic reading), plus about a million longreads tabs that I periodically lose when my browser crashes.

I tend to always have an audiobook on the go because I do a lot of driving, as well as at least one print book lying around.

I don’t always finish the books that I start. I used to feel guilty about this but starting a PhD cured me – sometimes I’m going to read just the bit of the book that I really need, and that is okay! Also sometimes I just don’t like a book and I’m not going to punish myself by finishing it if it’s not enriching my life in one way or another.

I do reread books, regularly. I always go back to Janet Malcolm and Zadie Smith, and I’ve reread Kate Cole-Adams’ Anaesthesia recently because I love everything about it so much. Also Pride and Prejudice – apparently I can read that once per year and never get tired of it.

The ideal book-reading scenario is lying down: on a freshly-made bed or a comfy couch, preferably in the late afternoon, with the windows open and the sun coming in. I try to do this as much as I can but I’m old enough now that half the time I fall asleep, which is its own kind of luxury I guess.

People are surprised to find out that I love science fiction, which they shouldn’t be, because I am a big nerd who loves thought experiments and also aliens. People are also surprised to learn that I treat my books terribly (draw/write in them, fold pages, break spines, drop them in the bath), but I firmly believe that unless it’s a particularly rare or precious item (for whatever reason, I’m sentimental about weird shit), books are disposable. Not library books obviously. I’m not a monster.

Starting a PhD cured me of guilt at not finishing books – sometimes I’m going to read just the bit that I really need, and that is okay!

What does your book collection look like?

I’ve just moved house and done a huge book cull so my book collection right now is fairly sparse. I have almost no system for organising them aside from grading them by height for reasons of structural integrity (I kind of enjoy the ritual of having to hunt for the book I want with my neck craned sideways so I can read the titles on the spines). The book I’ve owned for the longest is a collection of Katherine Mansfield short stories which belonged to my mum, and which she gave to me when I was 12 or so. Mansfield is still one of my favourites of all time.

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

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf has a lot to answer for. Reading that book was the final tumbler falling into place in my feminist awakening – the lock opened and I knew I wanted to spend my time trying to do for other people what she did for me.

Reading The Beauty Myth was the final tumbler falling into place in my feminist awakening.

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

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (preferably in Lyra’s world so I can have a daemon, but I would also accept living with the mulefa or being one of Serafina Pekkala’s witches). I first read these books when I was ten or eleven, which is the ideal age to engage with Pullman’s vividly drawn, passionate young adult trilogy and all its huge themes – faith, love, truth, the ineffable bliss of being alive and free – which he never tries to dumb down for a young audience. I’d still kill to know what shape my daemon would take. Obviously I want it to be a panther or something cool like that but I think more realistically he’d be like…a magpie.

Witches: What Women Do Together is available from 5 March from Readings. Sam will be doing events for the book in Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne.