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James Shaw (Image: Archi Banal)
James Shaw (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksAugust 8, 2023

The secret reading history of James Shaw

James Shaw (Image: Archi Banal)
James Shaw (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: Green Party co-leader James Shaw.

The book I wish I’d written

Probably The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is just such beautiful writing. It is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read. The way it weaves in these amazingly diverse human stories into the tale of our destruction of our forests is profoundly moving. I think that it is a book that inspires people to care about the natural world, and to take action.

The book I want to be buried with

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. What a book! Amazing. Why? Because it is probably the best book I’ve ever read, and because I read it when I was at university, hanging out with quite an oddball crew. So, I see myself and my friends in the story, and you could be anyone of those characters, even though they were quite different from each other. It’s an absolute triumph.

The first book I remember reading by myself

This is going to sound weird. It was The Lord of the Rings! My mum tells the story but it goes like this: I couldn’t read. It took me a long time, I think I was about six when I started reading, and it was because I had this amazing teacher. Mum said within two years of that teacher’s influence, I’d gone from zero to The Lord of the Rings, one of the densest books in the English language.

From left to right: the book James Shaw wishes he’d written; the one that haunts him; and the one he’d like to be buried with.

The book I pretend I’ve read

Er … Maybe The Bible? You know, it is very influential in our society and I sort of think, well, I should get around to it.

Utopia or Dystopia

A bit of both.

It’s a crime against language to…

I really dislike avant-garde writing. You know that stylistic kind of writing where you don’t necessarily follow the rules of the regular English language. The sort of thing where you write in snippets, or do something like change from prose to poetry, and then you drop in a text message. Then there’s like, just a blank page. You know … that sort of terrible stuff!

The book that haunts me

Chapter one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future haunts me. It is just one of the most searing accounts of a heatwave in India that kills tens of thousands of people and is written through the eyes of an American medical volunteer on the ground and it’s mind blowing. And when I read the news every single day there’s a heatwave happening that is not far off the one he’s describing. In fact, there was a heatwave in India in he last couple of weeks that has killed hundreds of people, if not thousands. His book Red Mars is also very good.

The book that made me laugh

It’s actually an environmental book by Ben Elton called Stark. He’s such a brilliant writer.  I’ve read a lot of his 80s and early 90s books. Gridlock was brilliant as well. This one was one of those reading experiences where I would drop the book because I was in hysterics and couldn’t breathe: I was kind of asphyxiated with laughter. So funny. I read one of his most recent books which was actually an alternative history when someone goes back in time to prevent the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, preventing WWI, and the consequences of preventing WWI which turned out to be worse than what happened. Very clever. He says he’s actually obsessed with history and had an amazing history teacher at high school. I really like alternative histories as well: they’re a kind of thought experiment.

From left to right: the book that James Shaw pretends to have read; the book that made him laugh; and the book that contains the character he most identifies with.

The book character I identify with most

I’m not sure I identify with him the most, but there’s a character in a novel I really like, Damiano by R. A. MacAvoy. It’s a fantasy book, set in late medieval Italy, during the backdrop of the Renaissance. The character’s name is Damiano Dalstrego. It’s got alternative history and magic in it! Two of my favourite things. He’s a Wizard’s son and an heir to dark magic. He’s also a young scholar and a musician. I think I read it as a teenager, so I’ve no idea if it’s any good, but I liked it at the time. But what I remember about it is the way that it ends. He has to make a choice between becoming a famous musician but there’s some negative consequence for the world with that, or not, and he makes the right choice.

Anyway, the particular refrain he develops on the lute makes it into the musical canon of the world, but no one remembers who he is. That always really appealed to me. I often think about it here in parliament, because I think in order to actually get something done, a lot of the time, you need to give it away, and allow other people to take ownership of it. Particularly if you are in a minority party. So a lot of the time that choice comes up, and it’s like, what am I trying to do here? Am I trying to think I am some kind of hero? Or am I trying to do some sort of lasting good?

The most underrated book

I think I’ve read John Le Carré and quite a lot of his books are completely underrated. People tend to focus on the Karla trilogy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and so on, but he’s got these other books around the periphery to do with George Smiley, his earliest books, which are very good. He’s was a fantastic writer, so accessible but also beautiful, and he has this very particular insight. I wouldn’t name one in particular but I think there are some of that canon that haven’t been turned into films that I think people should go back and take a look at.

What are you reading right now?

Cabinet papers.

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