A few years ago I met Guy Salvidge at an Avon Valley Writers’ Festival and more recently at the last Rockinhgam Writers’ Festival. Our paths continue to cross occasionally and with his article for Readers in Their Element, I am amazed to learn of his voracious appetite for reading. He certainly is in his element when he has a book in his hand.
In his own words, Guy’s intermittently award-winning fiction has squirrelled its way into such esteemed publications as The Great Unknown, Westerly: New Creative, Award-Winning Australian Writing and the forthcoming Stories of Perth. He has twice been Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Perth Writers’ Centres and he has won the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award and Joe O’Sullivan Writers’ Prize. Guy’s novel Yellowcake Springs was shortlisted for the 2012 Norma K Hemming Award and the sequel, Yellowcake Summer was published in 2013. When he’s not writing, he moonlights as an English teacher in rustic, rural Western Australia.
Guy Salvidge, Wrapped Up in Books
I was always a voracious reader. One of my early memories is of a library at my primary school in England. I’d been plonked there as I had finished my work for the day and I liked nothing better than being left alone to read. I might have been six years old. Three decades later, nothing has changed.
In my early teens I spent a lot of time in my high school library, devouring science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, as well as literary fiction like Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember reading Solzenitsyn’s Cancer Ward at the age of twelve or thirteen, and I was obsessed with nuclear war and the prophecies of Nostradamus. My favourite novel at this age was Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land, still the best after-the-bomb book I’ve read. At eighteen, I discovered Philip K. Dick. In a very real sense, he changed my life, so much so that I ended up writing about him extensively later on. But my love of science fiction was waning. Ironically, this coincided with my getting a job at Supernova Books in the Perth CBD on my twentieth birthday, a month before the 9/11 attacks.
In my twenties, I started to read crime fiction, first Raymond Chandler and then a host of others. I loved Chinese history and philosophy, so I puzzled over the I Ching and the parables of Zhuangzi. My favourite contemporary Chinese author was and is Ma Jian. He has a new book, China Dream, out later this year. I became increasingly interested in historical fiction, although I still had what I called my ‘1918 rule’. As the modern world more or less came into existence by the conclusion of the First World War, I reasoned that I could exclude anything published before the Armistice. I loved Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which is set in WWI, and ended up reading practically everything she’d published.
For authors I especially adored, I was a compulsive completist. I had to read everything, know everything, own everything. When I was barely old enough to drive I used to go on ‘book jaunts’ around the second-hand bookstores in Perth’s northern suburbs. Mainly Books, Mostly Books, Guildford Book Exchange, plus all those at suburban shopping centres. Virtually all of them are gone now, except for Guildford. I haunted the remainder piles out the front of Dymocks, Angus & Robertson and Collins, as well as library discard sales. Then, in the internet age proper, I’d hunt down the most obscure titles from an author’s backlist, poring over biographies and Wikipedia entries. No one was more serious about reading than me. I’d spent hours hunting down bargains online. In the early days, this was on Abebooks and Amazon. Later on, there was Fishpond, Ebay and Better World Books. Finally Book Depository, the juggernaut.
2008 was an important year in my reading journey. It was the year I started my blog, Wrapped Up in Books (named after a song by Belle & Sebastian), and it was the year I started recording the name and author of every book I read. Though it didn’t exist yet, I was hankering for Goodreads. To this point I’d been a big reader, but now I took it to a new level. I read 59 books in 2008, better than one a week. I first cracked the ton in 2014, and last year I read 138. In total, I read 801 books during the period 2008-2017.
Sometimes I wonder where it will end. If I live another forty years, then it follows that I’ll read between three and four thousand more books in that time. For starters, where will I store them? I only know of one person, Tehani Wessely, who reads substantially more than me, and one, Bruce Gillespie, who certainly owns more books than I ever will. I’m a book collector but also a ruthless book culler, and thus I doubt I own more than 1500 books presently. In 2017, I went through a crime noir phase, and currently I’m ploughing my way through nineteenth century Russian literature (Nikolai Gogol having singlehandedly obliterated my 1918 rule), but what will I read in the future? What, in fact, is the project I am undertaking with all this systematic book acquisition and book reading? I’ve managed not to mention writing in this piece so far, and I certainly believe that no one who doesn’t love reading will ever make even a halfway decent writer, but is all this really in the aid of writing? Can’t it just be that I truly love reading above all else, and always will?
For me, writing is an extension of reading, a by-product. Reading will always come first. Writing can be gratifying, of course—and having written is even better—but writing is really just a way of joining the conversation. In the 1920s and 30s, Mikhail Bulgakov was carrying on a conversation with his idol Gogol, who’d lived a century earlier. In my own work, I’ve been responding to my literary aunts and uncles, my grandparents. Their names are numerous, their ranks swelling all the time, a spidery web of writerly constellations appearing in my literary sky. Their names are to be engraved on my tombstone, in alphabetical order:
J. G. BALLARD
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
JAMES M. CAIN
PHILIP K. DICK
M. JOHN HARRISON
My only ambition as a writer is that, some day, other authors will include the name GUY SALVIDGE on tombstone lists of their own.