Reader Profile: Peter Midgley

For every day of our Indiegogo campaign, we’ll be sharing profiles from readers and supporters of Glass Bookshop both local to the city and from across Canada. Visit our campaign page now to claim cool perks and support us in building a beautiful brick-and-mortar space in downtown Edmonton. And read on to discover why today’s featured reader is excited to one day visit Glass Bookshop!

Peter Midgley lives in Edmonton. If it involves words, he will try his hand at it—he has written poetry, plays, short stories, and children’s books, and has done numerous translations. His latest book of poetry, let us not think of them as barbarians, a collection about the multiple legacies of colonialism, is due out with NeWest Press in August 2019. Read on to discover his relationship to reading and how he challenges himself to find new authors and books.

How did books and the act of reading come to be meaningful to you?
I do not recall a specific event or time in my life when I may have thought, “This reading thing works for me!” Books and stories have always been there, it seems. My parents were readers and there were books in every room in the house. Our small rural community’s public library was a stone’s throw from where we lived—as in five houses down. While the town built a new library, the books were housed in the old furniture store across the road from where we lived. If I ventured out of our book-filled house, I emerged to confront an institution dedicated to making books available to the public (well, sort of—it was apartheid South Africa and membership was limited to whites).

My mother ran the local florist shop and shared premises with a barber who sold second-hand books as a sideline. So really, wherever I went, there were books in multiple languages: English, Afrikaans, Dutch, German, Italian, French, and isiXhosa. I got to read everything from romance novels and an array of westerns to Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, Galbraith, Eugene Marais, and more.

Even with books all around me, there are moments that shifted my relationship with literature: In my first year at university, one of the English professors called me to her office. “My God, you need to read!” she exclaimed and shoved a pile of books into my hands. I’m not sure what she intended by her statement, as I had been a reader my whole life, but among the books she gave me that year were A Tale of Two Cities, Darkness and Noon, and 1984. Those books haunt me still. Other incidents from that year stand out, but not literary ones. Just before the final exams, the vice-chancellor of the university called me into his office to tell me in person that I need not reapply for admission—I was being expelled for my political activity. I could leave voluntarily, or get it the expulsion noted on my official transcript.

The following year, at a different university, Barbara Richter stopped me on the street: “Do you read African literature?” she asked. She opened her car and piled boxes of books onto the pavement—about two hundred, all by African writers. It was the start of a love affair that has lasted more than three decades.

What is your relationship now to books and reading?
I read for a living. When I am not reading other peoples’ manuscripts, I’m writing my own or editing. Clearly, I’m a person of limited interests. I mostly read African literature or nonfiction in several languages, and Latin or Dutch literature—the further it is removed from my Anglophone North American world, the better.

Is there a book that has had significant impact on you?
Several. I’ll start with André Brink’s Orgie and Oom Kootjie Emmer. Both read clandestinely as a tween. Orgie in the public library because I was too young to take out adult books and Kootjie Emmer overnight in the closet after stealing it from my aunt’s bedroom one Christmas holiday. Anyone who knows Afrikaans literature will understand what those books do to a twelve-year-old mind.

A Tale of Two Cities and 1984 drew my attention to the relationship between literature and society. Darkness at Noon was simply too real to imagine in 1984 in apartheid South Africa. Rubashov’s experiences in detention resonated with what was a reality for many South Africans. I myself was questioned by the security police; friends were detained and went into hiding. People were disappearing. Everywhere, Madame Defarge sat plotting revolution. Big Brother Botha waved his large crocodile finger and glared over the rims of his glasses. Rubashov walked down the street beside me in silence.

In the books I got from Barbara Richter, I encountered characters whose lives, hopes, and aspirations I recognized. For one thing, there were black people in these books! They spoke about places I knew and things that made me feel at home in fiction. There is not one book among them that stands out—I see them only as a collective infusion of life. I later learned Barbara had been diagnosed with leukemia and her gift to me was her way of clearing house before she died. One day, I will walk up to some unsuspecting young person and hand over an entire library of African literature. In memory of Barbara Richter.

And in the back of my mind, always, there is The Lance of Kanana by Harold Willard French. It’s an almost-forgotten book from the height of the British empire and will likely raise more than one eyebrow today. I read it in the Colliers Junior Classics omnibus collection. It’s the story of a young Bedouin boy who refuses to take up arms unless it is for Allah and Arabia. His difference and quiet strength spoke to me as the bookish boy in a very masculine, belligerent world. In retrospect, I think it was Kanana’s refusal to take up arms that shaped my own pacifist leanings and that led me to become a conscientious objector. That book really did change my life.

How does literature influence your sense of community?
I think my other answers give you a sense of what I have to say on this mater. Literature and the people who live and work in the midst of it sustain my life.

How do you find new books or writers?
By chance. By recommendation. By browsing websites and catalogues. At book fairs. At conferences and events. Books find their way to me. Eventually, I find my way to them, too. I’m currently following an example of reading only books that have sat on my shelves for decades, surviving multiple moves. There’s a reason they have not been culled over the years. Let’s discover why.

I’m also in a challenge with a friend to read a book from every African country. I think I’ve covered about most of the continent on my own over the years, but this is the first time I’m consciously reading my way around the continent from A to Z. Part of the challenge for me is not to read any book I have read before, and to read it in the original language, if possible.

Can you share a memorable experience you’ve had in a bookstore? What makes it stand out for you?
I remember walking out of a bookstore in Pretoria once just as Nelson Mandela walked in. Enough said.

What do you think Glass Bookshop could offer Edmonton’s community of readers and writers?

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Peter Midgely
Matthew Stepanic