Courtney Johnston (Image: Archi Banal)
Courtney Johnston (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJanuary 10, 2024

Courtney Johnston’s conveyor belt of books

Courtney Johnston (Image: Archi Banal)
Courtney Johnston (Image: Archi Banal)

Summer reissue: Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: tumu whakarae chief executive of Te Papa Tongarewa, Courtney Johnston.

First published on August 23, 2023.

The book I wish I’d written

All of them. I have a deep-seated envy of anyone with an idea that’s needful enough to turn into a book, and the tenacity to do it.

If I was going to pick one perfect thing I wish I’d written though, it would be Australian author Margo Lanagan’s short story Singing My Sister Down, a beautiful and devastating story about family love conveyed through the ritual killing of a teenage girl in a tarpit. It’s as sad and dark as that summary suggests, but the world-building Lanagan achieves in such a small number of pages is incredible.

Everyone should read

C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, but not until you need it. The wisest, bravest mediation on grief and a book that was my companion in a really hard time. It opens with these lines, and I’ve never felt so met by a book: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

I would also love people to read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, which is illuminating, generous and has been truly transformative in my own thinking.

The book I want to be buried with

Not a question I’d ever contemplated before (and I have secretly interviewed myself about my favourite books a lot). The pick came to me pretty quickly though: A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s a book that’s deeply sunk into the growth of my thinking self (all mixed up with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and all those books I read when I was young or quite young, where the author had more going on than I initially took out of the surface narrative). Images and phrases from the book seem to have hardwired themselves into my brain, and there are some everyday things that I seem to experience through these memories (especially the pleasure of very clean, smooth sheets). Plus, buried letters play a key role in the plot.

The first book I remember reading by myself

This is such a vivid early memory, but I have no idea whether it’s real. The way it goes is: I remember reading to myself in bed at night as a little kid. The book is The Biography of a Grizzly, by Ernest Thompson Seton. The book was published in 1900, and there’s a copy in our house that was an end of year prize given to my great-uncle Sandy in 1931, at Upper Mangorei School (which was my primary school too). And my memory is of looking across at my little sister in her bed, and she’s copying me reading in my bed, only she can’t read yet and the book she’s got clutched in her hands is upside-down. It’s such a clear memory but it’s totally possible I made it up.

From left to right: The book that Johnston wishes everyone to read (when they need it); another book that ought to be read; and the first book she remembers reading by herself (as well as the one that made her cry).

Utopia or Dystopia

Dystopia forever. I read quite a lot of middle-grade and young adult fiction, and much of that is set in dystopian or troubled worlds. I believe what Patrick Ness says about writing about the dark things, truthfully and respectfully, to support young people rather than abandon them to fend for themselves. Having said that, dystopic fiction written for adults tends to bore me. I’m all about those big pure teenage emotions.

The book that haunts me

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Haunting is, of course, a big part of the books – Cromwell is haunted by his past, his dead mentor, his dead wife and daughters, and the spectre of falling into Henry’s disfavour. I’ve read it twice now, and each time the conclusion of the final book leaves me in tears. Mantel’s close imagining and lush writing is entrancing, and I’m just so sad she’s dead and won’t write any more books.

The book that made me cry

See above – The Biography of a Grizzly. It’s the story of a Wahb, a grizzly bear whose mother and siblings are shot in the opening pages of the book. It traces his lonely and dangerous life, filled with the threats posed both by rapacious humans and other bears who want his territory. And it ends with him lying himself down to die; the closing illustration is a macabre sketch of human skeleton holding an hourglass and arrow. I’ve cried over loads of books – this is the first I recall.

If I could only read three books for the rest of my life they would be…

I would almost rather literally die than face this fate. But if push comes to shove: Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. The vast depths of historical drama, an extended stretch of amazing world building, and one of literature’s most loveable narrators to keep me company.  

The book character I identify with most

Cassandra Mortmain, the teenage narrator of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Though at a certain point in my 30s (I re-read this book about once every two years) I found my sympathies had started to move to Cassandra’s stepmother Topaz. Who knows, maybe one day it’ll be Mrs Cotton that I see myself in.

The plot change I would make

When Jo March denied herself Teddy in Little Women and then marries Professor Bhaer in Good Wives. I don’t think any of us will ever get over that. I still don’t know what Louisa May Alcott wanted generations of girls who identified with Jo to take out of that plot point.

The book I wish would be adapted for film or TV

I think Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker could make an exceptional movie. I’d love to see someone take on melding the intensity of the natural world described in the book with the comic book scenes that are woven through it.

From left to right: the book that Johnston wishes to be buried with; the book she thinks would make a great film; and the book containing the character that Johnston identified with the most.

Most memorable encounter with an author

When I was at primary school in New Plymouth, my mum took me one day to the neighbouring township of Inglewood, where the children’s and YA author David Hill lived, and I interviewed him for a school project. He was so kind and generous. His wife Beth was also my Latin and Classics teacher at high school.

Greatest New Zealand book

Over summer, I described Catherine Chidgey’s The Axeman’s Carnival as possibly the great New Zealand novel, and I currently stick by that (I like to hedge my bets, allowing for the emergence of future books). The invention of Tama the magpie narrator and the way Chidgey tells the story through his experience of the world are incredible; and having grown up on a farm, descendant of generations of farmers, I found her evocation of the challenges and emotions of rural life and especially rural men so insightful.

Best place to read

Not just place, but time. I treasure my summer holidays, and my reading stack is such a big part of that break. I curate it carefully for several months, and look forward to it daily. It’s not just the break from work that I look forward to – it’s also when the pace of the internet slows down and I’m not as easily distracted by the fast-twitch allure of social media. And then within that, I love to read while sunbathing, preferably either with a jug of decaf cold brew or a gin & tonic and a bowl of salt and vinegar chips.

What are you reading right now?

I think of my reading like a conveyor belt. So receding out of view at the moment are Maggie Farrell’s Hamnet and Lauren Groff’s Matrix which I’ve just both re-read for the first time. Yesterday I finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy which a friend (OK, the poet Kate Camp) described as “clap your hands in front of your face great” which is I line I wish I’d come up with.

Right now I’m deep in Anna Funder’s Wifedom (about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who was married to George Orwell; it goes well with having read Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses over last summer), and lazily reading Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which is another of those books that affected me greatly as a teenager and which I picked up recently at the library out of curiosity, to see how it feels now. And then coming up next are the new novels from Thomasin Sleigh, The Words for Her, and Emily Perkins, Lioness.

I read a lot for work as well – my colleague Puawai Cairns describes this as “composting”. This week the pieces that have really sunk in are a guide released by MBIE for communities, about just transitions; a lengthy interview with museum thinker Bob Janes; and this beautiful e-tangata piece by Connie Buchanan, with Paraone Gloyne talking about the importance of oriori (“lullabies”). 

Keep going!