Book Review: Shelf Life, by C. K. Stead

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cv_shelf_lifeI looked forward to reading this book by our former poet laureate and well known man of letters. It transpired, though, to be less of a read and more of a dip in and out. Stead is a thoughtful man with strong opinions which are based on a long experience of the literary world in New Zealand and the people that world has contained over the years. An argument well presented is always interesting, even if only as a comparison to one’s own opinion or beliefs, and I found myself reading an essay or interview then spending time reflecting on Stead’s words.

His writings on Mansfield and the criticisms leveled at her by those who came after her, present a microcosm of the Colonial’s dilemma – how to wrench oneself free of the home country’s influence while attempting to rise above the cultural cringe engendered by comparisons with literary giants from the past.

The book is a delight of words, valuable for that alone, when language is no longer valued for the most part. But to read the thoughts of an erudite man, familiar, as Stead is, with his subject, is to enjoy the company of those of whom he writes, whether still alive or long dead.

His reviews of others’ work are thoughtful and concise with many examples added, which enables the reader to build his own understanding and knowledge of a poet or author. The index at the back of the book gives an indication of how wide Stead’s range of interests are, and offers the reader a regular smorgasbord of subjects for contemplation and consideration.

As Stead says of Patrick Evans novel Gifted, this is “literature for the literate and the literary,” and it is certainly a treat for those such inclined. But even a mild interest in the thoughts of a man with a wide experience of New Zealand writing would be rewarded by a dip into its pages.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences
by C. K. Stead
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408497

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