Patrick deWitt, stops on the red carpet at the Scotiabank Giller Bank Prize gala, Toronto, November 19, 2018. Photo: Chris Young/Canadian Press
Inside the Bibliographic Mind and Book Collection of Patrick deWitt
On the eve of 'The Librarianist' writer's appearance at the Toronto International Authors Festival, we share some of his opinionated and well-curated reading life / BY Nathalie Atkinson / September 21st, 2023
Patrick deWitt’s latest novel The Librarianist is a stealth and emotionally powerful story about lifelong introvert Bob, a retired librarian, who, at 71, discovers a new community of friendship at a nearby senior centre. Bob had until then lived his life through books and reading, “which is something I can relate to,” the Canadian-born author, 48, who now lives in Portland, Ore., jokingly tells me. The day of our extended interview, I enjoyed what Bob and his creator would consider a perfect day: I reread The Librarianist, then went for a meandering walk that ended up (as they all invariably do) at my local public library branch to pick up books I’d reserved.
Bob’s devotion to literature would put the kind of book lovers who accessorize their lives with “I’d rather be reading” mugs and throw cushions to shame. At one point, I thought I’d have to keep track of the many book titles that came up in the novel as a way of understanding the main character. But aside from citing Edgar Allen Poe by name (as well as Bob’s disastrous attempt to read Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat to seniors), deWitt purposefully withholds which specific books and authors animate his character’s inner life. The author admits that he would normally be inclined to put everything in, “and now I’m sort of enjoying restraint.” There is, however, still what deWitt explains as “the shape of its absence” because in his mind the contours of Bob’s taste invisibly mirrors his own. On the eve of deWitt’s appearance at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), we share some of his opinionated and well-curated reading life.
Don’t Give Him Books (or Recommend Any)
“This thing happens where people give you gifts and the gift is a book. And I’m one of these people who, while it is a wonderful gift, theoretically, tend not to read that book unless it was already on my radar. Because then you’re asking me to read outside of my quest to relentlessly seek out books that engage me. This book that I’ve just been given for all I know is a masterpiece and it’ll completely knock me, but I probably won’t find out because I don’t read books that people give me. It’s like somebody cutting to the front of the line.”
The Thrill of the Hunt is Paragon
More often than not deWitt’s hunting ground is Powell’s Books in Portland, where, a few times a month, he’ll systematically go through fiction, from A to Z, for a couple hours. “Generally speaking, I’m looking for used books. Ideally hardcover. I don’t care if it’s the first edition, but I’m at the point where I like the object, it’s as important to me — and older books tend to be quite attractive. I have probably 40 or 50 books in my mind at all times that I’m kind of looking for or am curious about. So I’m looking for those when I go from A to Z, but I’m also just picking out books that look interesting. I would say the first thing, the 40 or 50 authors in my mind, accounts for maybe two-thirds of my reading. But the last third is just sort of happenstance. I almost never buy books online unless it’s something that I just feel I have to have. A really special book.” A hardcover of Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard would fall in that category. “I like the idea of shopping locally and relying on luck and happenstance. There’s a method in there somewhere, but I play pretty fast and loose with it. It’s common for me to buy books by authors I’ve never heard of.”
DeWitt has a penchant for loquacious mid-century women, like Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Jane Bowles’ only novel, Two Serious Ladies, is a benchmark. “I’m not the first one to say this, but it just seems to improve every time I pick it up. It’s more sort of beguiling and strange and funny. And she’s just such good company and she’s so charming!”
“Whenever I see a hardcover edition of [Frank Conroy’s memoir] Stop Time, I buy it as long as it’s not prohibitively expensive. It’s a very special book. New York Review Books should put that back out! I have two now and I’ll give one away and then I’ll buy another one next time I see it. These books, there’s some sort of energy to them. And I love [William] Gaddis. Carpenter’s Gothic is my favourite — maybe that says something about me, because I didn’t say J.R. or The Recognitions, but at this point in my life, I’m not really looking to be challenged.
Best. Library. Ever.
Readers tend to have attachments to the libraries of their youth. So do writers. DeWitt had a peripatetic childhood, but grew up in Vancouver, so he has fond memories of West Vancouver Library, “which was where my brother and I would go for Asterix and Choose Your Own Adventure books. It seemed like I was going somewhere kind of fancy, where the weight of the social contract of the library was first sort of shown to me as a child. The value of a book as an object was instilled in me through the social contract of the library,” deWitt recalls of being entrusted with books on loan. “That was meaningful to me.” Later, when deWitt was 18, he moved from southern California back to Vancouver.
“I was working here and there as a set labourer in the film industry, but there was a lot of time off. By this time I knew I wanted to write novels, but I didn’t really know what that meant or how you went about it. But I did understand that novelists read widely and I was already reading fairly widely for a couple years. That library really sort of solidified it for me. I would go there every day and bring home a random stack. I knew you were supposed to read the Russians, so I’d get all the Russian stuff I could hold. And then, you know, what about Beckett? And I’d just spent a lot of time trudging up and down the street. And I learned what it’s actually like to live [Bob’s] life through that library. So it was an important location for me. I remember one day I whacked up 50 bucks in fines — and I didn’t have 50 bucks. I had to wait until 50 bucks came my way. To be absent that resource was sort of crippling.
Patrick deWitt is in conversation at TIFA for “The Extraordinary Ordinary,” Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8p.m.