Books·My Life in Books

Seth: 7 books that shaped my life

The renowned Canadian cartoonist reveals some of his literary obsessions.
Cartoonist Seth is the subject of a new National Film Board documentary called Seth's Dominion. (National Film Board of Canada)

Christmas ghost stories were once a staple on cold December nights. Seth, the renowned cartoonist of Palookaville, is reviving the tradition with new illustrated editions of three classics: Edith Wharton's Afterward, M.R. James' The Diary of Mr. Poynter and Marjorie Bowen's The Crown Derby Plate.

The cartoonist, who is the subject of a new National Film Board documentary called Seth's Dominion, tells us about seven of the books that have shaped his life.

365 Bedtime Stories by Nan Gilbert

"This fat, newsprint and pasteboard children's book, 365 Bedtime Stories by Nan Gilbert, illustrated by Jill Elgin, is my most beloved object. It is the very first book I ever read all the way through entirely on my own. I guess I was about kindergarten age when I first read it and I can clearly recall the slow plodding effort made to finish each page and the warm satisfaction felt as each was completed. Fortunately, each page was also a separate story, making the little accomplishment feel more complete. 'Separate' is a bit misleading — the book's most wonderful element was that each 'separate' story interconnected with the others. All the stories revolved around the 23 children who lived in a cul-de-sac named 'What-a-Jolly Street.' If this sounds terribly saccharine to your ears, you would be right. The book is very goody-goody. Everyone is terribly nice and their little adventures are helpful and uplifting. This book is not a great forgotten classic (by any stretch) but it is a cleverly constructed book and the trick of using a series of interlocking but self contained story-pages has stuck with me all my life and still informs how I write a comic story today."

1984 by George Orwell

"There are not many books that I was assigned in high school that have stayed with me. George Orwell's 1984 has. I have continued to reread it every few years and it continues to fascinate. Obviously, the book is prescient and marvellously clever. It does a great job of highlighting how oppressive regimes work and the terrifying power of totalitarianism. I'm not rereading it for those reasons. Instead it is the small human story that brings me back. The loneliness of Winston Smith has a rich familiar texture to it. 1984 is remarkably evocative in its ability to accurately describe the experience of living in one's own head. The interior monologue that drones on, the elusive quality of memory, the longing for sympathy, understanding and love. Ultimately it is Winston's inner life that stays with me — not so much the world of Big Brother."

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

"Really, I could have put any of Salinger's four books because I reread them all obsessively during my 20s. If you had asked me in those years who my favourite author was I would have immediately answered 'Salinger.' That would not be my answer today. In fact, I recently reread his books again (after a lapse of several decades) and I was not 'pleasantly surprised.' In fact, I found them entirely irritating to my older sensibilities. Why had I liked them so much then? I suspect it was the amount of puppy dog love that Salinger poured onto his idealized characters. How could you not love perfect, sensitive and good-looking Franny or Zooey from Franny and Zooey? They are a 20-year-old's wet dream of identification figures. Embarrassingly, I can recall shaving, back then, with a cigarette dangling from my lips in total emulation of Zooey's toilet routine. I will say one good thing about Salinger though, he always had a lovely way of infusing his tales with a kind of sweet mysticism which still has some power to charm."

In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

"In the I990s I read quite a pile of Japanese literature in translation. Everything by Tanizaki. It wasn't his novels that had the greatest impact on me, though. Instead it was a little essay he wrote in 1933 on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows. This book had a tremendous effect on my thinking about art. The book is a highly idiosyncratic and eccentric essay (and probably says more about Tanizaki than Japan) in which he boils down the essential elements of Japanese art and culture to three things: darkness, time and dirt. He eloquently gives forth on the beauty of shadow and patina and the lustre of the glow that can only be found deep in an unlit room. As each year passes I find myself agreeing more and more with his odd definition of beauty."

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

"I only read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov about a decade ago, but when I finished it I was so astonished that I immediately read it again. I suppose it's the brilliance of Nabokov's performance here that so dazzles you. That he can wring so much depth and feeling out of what is essentially just a sophisticated 'joke' is really something to behold. The three-part structure (poem, commentary and footnotes) is, of course, utterly inspired but what continues to impress upon subsequent rereading is the number of levels the book can be read on. And, on just how damn entertaining it all is."

A Family Romance by Anita Brookner

"I had never heard of Anita Brookner until I read her obituary in the Times earlier this year. She was well known, apparently, for her gloomy novels about lonely women. That sounded up my gloomy alley, so I instantly ordered a copy of (her Booker Prize-winning novel) Hotel du Lac from Abebooks. I didn't adore the book but I liked it enough to read another. I have now read 11 of her novels this year alone, so I guess that tells you something of how I feel about her writing. To be honest, her books are all kind of the same. Slow, melancholy stories about loneliness and the passage of time. She has a repertory company of characters and they shift roles from novel to novel. This 'sameness' doesn't bother me any. I like an artist who digs around in the same soil. I am also fascinated with the quiet, shadowy and timeless flats her characters inhabit. She shares something of Tanizaki's dim aesthetic. So far (I still have 14 books of hers to read) her masterpiece appears to be A Family Romance (titled Dolly in the U.S.). Brookner has a profound and complex understanding of woman. Empathetic but sharp. Even cold sometimes. Dolly was one of the richest characters I've encountered in literature. She could have easily been a caricature, but Brookner invested her with real human genuine dignity."

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

"Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is another recent discovery that has left a big impression on me. I've only read it once but I have re-listened to it as a wonderful audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson) a ridiculous number of times. I am drawn to the rich interior monologues that comprise the book's rather mundane narrative. This novel is the stuff of REAL life. And it is a very moving book, usually bringing tears each time. There is something in the book — some mystic thread — that almost suggests a secret might be found in the story if you look hard enough. Life, love, people, family, time... all of it so meaningless yet so important. So enormous. The central section, 'Time Passes,' is an exquisite little gem all by itself."


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