When is a bookshelf not just a bookshelf? {Life in a London Flat}

{So tall it doesn't fit in the picture}

When is a bookshelf not just a bookshelf?

When it is a rainbow. 

When it is a home for all the books previously stores in dusty boxes in the attic. 

When it is an invocation. 

I have been dreaming about this bookshelf for several months now. I visualized it in all it's rainbow glory. I knew exactly how I was going to arrange the books. I knew how it would look when I was lying on the couch, admiring it. 

With all things, though, the actual reality of getting it was more complicated and more hilarious than I could have ever imagined.  

Our good friend

Anne van Mansvelt,

a master woodworker, designed and installed the shelves.  To make sure they were perfect, he built the whole unit in his workshop beforehand. When he arrived and placed it on our front step I was blown away. 

It was beautiful.  

It was so beautiful and sooooo tall. 

There was no way it was going to fit up the steep, narrow, Victorian staircase leading to our flat door. We tried and got catastrophically stuck trying to manoeuvre around the first landing. 

Being Dutch, Anne's first thought was to haul it up through the windows. In Amsterdam all the tall narrow houses have winches hanging in the eaves, perfect for moving heavy furniture in and out of the windows. 

Our flat is very high up on the third floor (second floor to Brits), and we don't have any winches.  There was no way the bookshelf could come up via the front. However, after a complete inspection, we realized that our bedroom window in the back overlooks the flat roof of our ground floor neighbour's bedroom. 

That was the solution! 

It's not every day you find yourself pulling a bookshelf through your downstairs neighbour's flat, into their garden, up onto their roof, and then through your own bedroom window. After that the installation went as planned. But what an adventure! 


Now that the bookshelf is there it feels like an invocation. An act of calling upon the creative spirit for strength and inspiration. 

We have brought all the books down from the attic and organized them beautifully on the shelves. We are finally treating all of our books with the respect they deserve. They have an honoured place in our home. 

This, then, is a turning point. I am ready to continue this journey in writing and illustrating. 

There are some objects that acquire layers of meaning beyond their basic function. This bookshelf is one of them. 

{copies of Magic at the Museum, signed, and ready to be delivered to Somerset House}

Life in a London Flat #5 - Bookshelves

I love books; I can't live without them. We have been successful at simplifying many of our possessions, but books are impossible to part with.

Sometimes I think we're going sink under the weight of all the books in our London flat. I worry that, as we buy more books and pile them into the bookshelf, we'll have to build a buttress outside to hold both the floor and the wall up. Otherwise we might collapse into our neighbour's flat below.

When I look at our bookshelf, each book tells a story. Not just the story within its pages, but also the story of who I was and what I was thinking the moment I read it. A bookshelf is like an autobiography.  When I visit someone's house, I love taking a peek at their bookshelves, as I can tell so much about their interests and habits by looking at the titles on the spines. Cookbooks. Travel books. Novels. Poetry. Art books. They all reveal aspects of our characters.

Books allow us to enter imaginatively into someone else's life.  And when we do that, we learn to sympathize with other people.  But the real surprise is that we also learn truths about ourselves, about our own lives, that somehow we hadn't been able to see before.

So, tip #5 for

Life in a London flat

is: proudly display your books, they are part of who you are (and related... tip #5.1 is hide your TV... ours is behind the hinged panel below the shelves).

I don't ascribe to the trends stating that we should recover our books in neutral dust-jackets, or arrange them by size or colour so the bookshelves look like rainbows. Having been a librarian's assistant in a past life (nerd alert!), I try to arrange my books alphabetically and in genres, such as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.  Our books are bright and colourful, and add an injection of personality into our small, serene little flat. 

Our built-in bookshelf was built by the amazing

Anne van Mansfeld

, who worked as a boat builder in Holland before moving to London and starting his cabinetry business. He works with navy-style attention to detail and precision. 

So many thoughts. So many ideas. So many memories. So many ways our minds have been challenged and broadened.

So here's a question: do your bookshelves tell your story?

"A little library, growing every year, 

is an honourable part of a man's history.  

It is a man's {and woman's} duty to have books."

Henry Ward Beecher

"When you reread a classic, 

you do not see more in the book than you did before;  

you see more in yourself than there was before."

Clifton Fadiman

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How to keep a reading journal

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How and why to keep a reading or book journal

When I was a teenager I discovered an old notebook of my grandmother's in which she had written down the title of every book she had read as a teenager in her gorgeous, florid handwriting.

Seeing her notebook inspired me, and shortly afterwards I bought a small notebook from our local dollar store and started keeping a reading journal of my own.  I have recorded 715 books that I read for pleasure since October 30, 1999 (which is weird, as I just realized that my daughter was born exactly 15 years later!).

I didn't realize when I started how much that little reading journal would influence my life. It has become a bibliography or road map tracking my personality, my worries, my likes, my dislikes and my fascinations.

Why you should keep a reading journal: 

1. To remember what you've read.

 Sometimes I'll remember a story I read, but won't remember the title.  Or I'll want to recommend a book that I loved three years ago... It's handy to be able to open my notebook, flip to the relevant page, and find the title and author.

2. To track your changing personality and reading taste.

 Certain books speak to us at certain times in our lives.  When I look back at the books I was reading a year ago, three years ago or 10 years ago I can see exactly who I was at that time and how those books nourished my personal quests.

3. To keep track of how much you've read.

If you're like me, you are a competitive reader.  Each year I want to read more than the year before.  The goal isn't always more books, but to read with more discernment.  One year I read all of Shakespeare (except for the history plays).  Other years I have had other challenges for myself.  Keeping a reading journal keeps me accountable for my reading goals.

4. To record your impressions of a book.

 My reading journal started out as a simple bibliography (Title, Author, Date Read), and hasn't expanded beyond that.  However, I also keep a "Commonplace Book" where I collect quotes and passages that inspire me.  This is like an extension of my reading journal.

5. It makes you a better reader and a better writer.

 When you keep a book journal you are practising conscientious reading.  You're reading with purpose, and giving focused attention to something invariably makes you better at it.

How to keep a reading journal:

1. Selecting a container.

The decision here is digital vs paper. When I started the digital world wasn't nearly as advanced as it is now.  I bought a little notebook from our local dollar store and started recording the books as simple bibliography entries. As that's how I started, I don't think I'm going to change my system.  You could get a slightly larger notebook and include your favourite quotes, if you wanted.

I know that Moleskine does a special reading journal notebook, which might be a nice option.

If you want to go digital, you could open a word document, or even use one of the reading log websites such as goodreads or librarything.  The thing with goodreads that frustrated me is that you can't record books twice, which means you can never record when you've re-read a book. (My husband always teases me about how often I re-read books.)

2. Decide how much or how little you want to record.

This is completely up to you. Do you want to write a book review and collect quotes for each book? Or do you simply want to record the title, author and date you read it?  Those three entries are the absolute minimum.  You could also record how you acquired the book or who recommended it to you (bookstore, library, borrowed from friend, found on the train seat, etc). And you could have a system for rating the book.  I usually put a small dot beside titles I really enjoyed.

If you do decide to copy quotes, make sure you write down the page numbers for each one, or you'll never be able to find the original again (I've learned from my mistakes).

3. Number the books.  

Your first entry will be # 1.  Then number each subsequent entry so that you can keep track of how many books you've read since you started.  I've read 715 books for pleasure since Oct, 1999.  I didn't include the innumerable books I had to read for academic papers and research, as all those books would have been recorded in the various research bibliographies appended to my essays and dissertations.

4. Record the book when you've finished it.

If you don't, you'll lose track.

5. Keep a page or two at the back to record books you want to read.

Whenever someone recommends a book, or I read a book review that sounds interesting, I write the title of the book down in the last pages of my reading journal.  That way I'm never stuck for something to read when I have no books on my bedside table.

Have you every kept a reading journal?  Do you have any tips? 

For the Love of Books: A Reading Challenge

One of my goals last year was to read 52 books, that's one book per week.  It doesn't seem like that much, but with a busy work schedule, travels and a few weeks lost to bronchitis, I didn't quite manage.  Instead I read 49 books. Though, for a person whose passion is making books, you'd think I would be able to read more!  (I don't count picture books in this list, and if I did, I'd be in the hundreds of books per year). 

I read whatever I can get my hands on, and in Cape Town, that can sometimes be a challenge.  In Canada and England I take books for granted; they are cheap, easy to get (via amazon, the library or my local bookstore), and I always seem to have a larger pile of unread books than read ones. 

Finding books in Cape Town is a different story.  Books are almost double the price here, and if you want a specific one, it takes weeks to order one in from your bookstore. I had to wait a over a month to get Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge" shipped in from the States.  

I thought I'd make a list of my top 10 books from 2012.  This is completely subjective, and I wouldn't say they're favourites, just books that make me look at the world in a different way. All books, whether you enjoy them or not, are someone's effort to light a candle in the darkness.  

So, here are my 10 thought-provoking books for 2012 (in no particular order):


Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

 (a witty and honest biography of the author's mother, coming of age in Kenya, Rhodesia and Zambia)


The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

(a futuristic short-story about a world where all the people are plugged into machines and have no human interaction, sounds familiar, no?)


The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

(absolutely divine writing....)


His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

(A spiritual and metaphysical adventure for children)


The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

(A coming of age tale about Larry, drifting through post-war Europe, trying to find the meaning of life, and going against the expectations of his peers, who seem to value money and power more than spirituality. A life changing book.)


The Story of English in 100 words by David Crystal

 (100 words, defined and explained from the first word ever written in English "roe deer" to modern words like "webinar."  A must read for all language lovers.)  


Goliath by Tom Gauld

(best graphic novel I've read all year, and a new way to look at a Bible story)


Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

(two young spies, trying to save each other against all odds in WWII France.  And who is telling the truth?)


All's Well that End's Well by William Shakespeare

(Not your typical love story, Helena hoodwinks Bertram into marrying her: she's happy; he's not. How will it end?)


Wildwood by Colin Meloy

(an adventure in an alternate reality Portland, where two children have to unravel the political and environmental conflicts of a Wildwood populated by talking birds, an army of foxes, other fantastic creatures.  A romp of a read.)

If you want to join me in the reading challenge, you can find me on



And, do you have any recommendations for books I should read in 2013?  Leave a comment and let me know. :-) 

PS:  I have an e-reader, but I'm such an old-fashioned old soul that I find it difficult to muster enthusiasm for reading on it.  I'd much rather have books in my hand and on my bookshelf.  :-)  And, just look at this library, isn't it stunning?  

My new favourite place in Cape Town.... the Central Library!

Michael Rosen and Mark Haddon on Reading


Michael Rosen and Mark Haddon discussed the transformative qualities of great books; how reading them can change our outlook on life.

Michael Rosen did a reading, the the manner of his father, demonstrating the magic of "Great Expectations."  Apparently, Rosen first heard Great Expectations when his father read it aloud to the family on a rather wet camping trip in Yorkshire (or was it the Urals?). Rosen held the audience in the grip of each word as he read the first few pages of book, complete with actions and voices.  If you want a sampling of his dynamic reading style, don't miss his youtube rendition of "We're Going on a Bear Hunt."  

Mark Haddon, by comparison, explained how learning ancient Greek profoundly changed his appreciation for reading.  Suddenly he could read the Iliad and the Odyssey in their original form.  Translating the ancient language into English made him consider every word, and every expression seriously.  This isn't something that we do when we read fluently in a language.  Too often we skim forward, only stopping at the 'best bits' to read slowly or re-read.

And while Michael Rosen and Mark Haddon were discussing the merits of different kinds of reading, I was sketching.  I intended to draw both men, but got stuck on Michael Rosen.  He bears an uncanny resemblance to my uncle Paul and my Dad!  Those blue eyes, slightly rounded nose and wiry grey beard.  My first attempt at drawing Michael actually ended up being my uncle Paul, totally by accident!  (See top left sketch).

If you're interested in finding out more about the importance of reading.  Pick up a copy of

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

which is a book of essays on reading by Michael Rosen, Mark Haddon, Zadie Smith and many more.


Courtauld Alumni Authors Event

One of the best things about being a Courtauld Institute of Art alumna is that I get to rub shoulders with fantastically creative people on a regular basis.

This week was the first (annual, I hope) Courtauld Alumni Authors event. All Courtauld Institute alumni were encouraged to submit books they'd authored in the past few years, and a select few were chosen for the reading night.

On display were hundreds of great, authoritative, art historical tomes, worthy of the best ivy league libraries. But, amongst all those scholarly books were a few exceptions, and those were chosen for the reading: two novels, two memoirs, and poetry.

I wasn't selected to read, as the audience was too erudite for children's books, but at the post-reading soirée Magic at the Museum was prominently displayed with all the other 'fiction' books. (See above)

And now that my Friday work is done, I'll brew a cup of coffee and hibernate with my copy of Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard. I'm giddy with anticipation: a New York Times bestseller, set in Paris, and written by a Courtauld alumna. It just couldn't get any better than that!

Why get books signed?

Why get authors and illustrators to sign books?

I contemplated this question whilst standing in a long-ish queue to get books signed by Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham.

A modern book is, by its nature, a mass produced object. The author/illustrator may put hours of work into the writing and artwork, but we consumers don't get to see that personal effort. We can't experience those hours, or touch the artwork. Instead, we hold bundles of pages that were printed and bound in a factory (probably in China).

So, we get to buy a piece of the author/illustrator's creative psyche, but there isn't a physical connection to the person. We can't see, hear or touch them: they don't perform on stages like musicians.

All we really want is an emotional connection to the creative people we admire. Getting a book signed is that connection. A moment of conversation. Eye contact. Their handwriting is physical evidence that they transformed the book from a mass-produced object into a unique work of art.

I like to take it one step further when I sign, and actually sign my books with the original pen I used to draw the illustrations. This takes the experience full circle: from my studio, to the factory, and back to my studio again (so to speak).

I'm certainly guilty of standing in long queues to get books signed. As a result I've met some fantastic authors and illustrators. Above is my London collection of signed books. You can see: Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham, Roz Streeten, Philip Pullman, Lea Stirling, John Lowden, Freya Blackwood, Sarah McIntyre, Audrey Niffenegger, Chris Ware.

There are more, oh yes, I've met so many more authors and illustrators. But, I didn't always have a book on hand for them to sign. And, there are so many more whom I'd like to meet.

Do you have any signed books?