The Next Chapter

How Jordan Tannahill deals with his personal library as he moves around the world

The award-winning writer discusses how he's pared down and maintained his large library as he moved to Europe, and currently splits his time between London and Budapest.
Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning, playwright, author and theatre director from Ottawa. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on May 4, 2019.

Jordan Tannahill is the youngest two-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for drama. In 2018, he published his debut novel, Liminal. His plays are being presented all over the world and, as a result, Tannahill is living between London and Budapest.

Being a book lover can pose some problems for a nomadic writer. Tannahill's had to have some tough discussions with himself about what books he can keep and what titles have to go. He spoke to The Next Chapter about how he pares down and maintains his extensive library.

Inspiration from Alberto Manguel

"Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel was the jumping off point for me to consider what it was to own and collect books. In June of 2015, Manguel was preparing to move from his village home in the Loire Valley in France where he had this legendary library of 35,000 books. The whole book is about him in the process of packing up his library and deciding which books to keep and which to get rid of as he prepares to move into a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. He talks about the importance of a journey the book has been on.

I realize that books have this totemic power to inspire me and to witness me, in a way.-  Jordan Tannahill

"When I was reading Manguel's book, I thought, 'Why do I surround myself with books?' I mean, I live in these Spartan apartments around the world with basically no furniture and no clothes; other kinds of possessions have very little significance to me. I realize that books have this totemic power to inspire me and to witness me, in a way. The books that I've kept with me throughout my life were given to me by a lover or a mentor or someone significant in my life, or they remind me of a discovery I made at a certain juncture that changed the course of my life. Even though I've read these books often years ago and probably will never even crack them open again, their presence in my house and in my life feel somehow significant. They are, in some ways, signposts that mark my journey."

The power of a book

"A book that is fantastically written book but punctured me was Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. I read the book when I was deeply in love with my best friend in my senior year of high school and it was totally unrequited. The way that Anne Carson writes about this  unrequited love affair between Geryon, who is this monster from Greek mythology, with young Hercules and the way that she's able to articulate this essentially adolescent gay male infatuation felt more real than even what I was going through. Even when I see that book now on my bookshelf years later, it gives me a sucker punch.

"Also, as a writer, I keep books with me as fuel for my imagination. If I hit writer's block, I look up and seeing all those spines, the different colours and widths, the authors' names and the titles of those books, it's like fuel for me. It reminds me that I'm part of this timeless conversation with other writers and other thinkers and I'm offering some small contribution to that conversation."

Keep, store or toss?

"There was a rubric of three things very roughly [to determine whether or book would stay or not]. One would be, is it a rare book? Is it a book that I can't find anywhere else? Maybe it's a rare chap book or limited edition multiple or a really old edition of something that I've marked up and has all this marginalia in it. Another is a book that might be pertinent to what I'm doing right now and thinking about. Maybe I'm writing something that is perfectly resonant with what Foucault talks about and I need to keep that book. Then there's the personal significance factor. A book that was given to me by someone near to me, maybe the book is like a bridge between us over a distance. If I carry this book with me, my friends are nearby.

It reminds me that I'm part of this timeless conversation with other writers and other thinkers.- Jordan Tannahill

"The greatest fate for a book is to actually to keep it circulating, to give it away. I've given so many my copy of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts or Chris Krauss's work. These books should be moving. And then, there are those books that we buy with good intentions and we don't get to. But sometimes I think that's OK. There are a couple books on my shelf — The Inferno, Ulysses, even Beckett's prose — I know I'm not going to get to them anytime soon, but knowing that they're there feels good somehow. It's like having allspice or cinnamon in your cupboard, you don't know when you're going to need it, but it's part of the the essential ingredients."

Jordan Tannahill's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?