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ANYTHING SUBTITLED “A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ____” IS HARD FOR ME TO RESIST

Our Type Reader for September is Nathalie Atkinson


Nathalie Atkinson visits Type Books’ Queen West store weekly, if not more often. Usually there’s at least one special order book waiting for her when she arrives to see what new books hit our shelves before her last visit. You’ve probably seen Atkinson’s name in print or online, as she’s one of Canada’s most insightful journalists on arts, culture, and fashion. (Check out this incredible feature on how Instagram has changed farm work.) She’s also the host of the Revue Cinema’s Designing the Movies series, which discusses the art direction and style of movies ranging from Heathers to Orlando to Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (later this September).

We gave Nathalie the Type Reader questionnaire, and in turn learned about the dangers of reading peer pressure, which reading material works best on streetcars, and received a very convincing pitch for a Tom Hiddleston-led Fred Astaire biopic:


NATHALIE ANSWERS THE TYPE QUESTIONNAIRE

What is the first book you remember loving?

Where the Sidewalk Ends 
by Shel Silverstein. I have no tattoos but if I ever got any they would feature his darkly funny verse and cartoons. The art and text of his rhymes work together to add up to some unforgettably witty and twisted mental images. I mean, “Someone ate the baby.” Someone ate the baby. The honesty in his work for children is something I appreciate even more in hindsight, because I think his scathing yet upbeat verse populated by monsters and misfits prepared me well for life.

What is your favourite virtue in a book?

Idiosyncrasy.

What do you appreciate most in a book character?

Recklessness and ingenuity.

What character (real or fictional) do you dislike the most?

The unreliable narrator.

If you were to write a non-fiction book about anything, what would it be about?

If the vocabulary of olfaction weren’t so esoteric, I’d write some sort of book about scent. Or I’d like to write an abecedary of my other love—television detectives from Columbo and Rockford to Inspectors Morse, Tennison, and Wallander.

Your favourite prose authors?

Peter Ackroyd, Anne Carson, Patricia Highsmith, Kelly Link, Monique Proulx, Stella Gibbons, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Nicholson Baker, Megan Abbott, Meg Wolitzer, Amor Towles, AA Gill, Mick Herron, Donald Westlake, Muriel Spark. Boethius. Laurie Colwin, and MFK Fisher. And based both on the frequency of re-reading their books and the number of books I read about them: Nancy Mitford and Agatha Christie, inevitably.

Your favourite poets?

Anne Carson, TS Eliot, David Berman, Dante. And I’ve had to replace copies of George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls when the bindings fall apart from use.

Your favourite book illustrators?

Rex Whistler, Quentin Blake, Aubrey Beardsley, Eric Ravilious, the overall illustrative design work of Canadian cartoonist Seth (both for his own books and those of others) that considers the whole book as an object. I’ve bought books solely to enjoy the ornamentation of Cressida Bell and Coralie Bickford-Smith. I would also include Tomi Ungerer—plus, it’s fun to imagine the mischief he and pals Silverstein, Philip Roth, and Maurice Sendak got up to in the 1960s. I love artist Edward Bawden’s sensibility and eye for colour and am always on the hunt for vintage books he has illustrated or designed. And the illustrator W.A. Dwiggins, who created typefaces (Caledonia, Electra, and many others), popularized colophons, and designed the early memorable Alfred A. Knopf beauties. His H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is stunning. The first major book on his life and work (W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design) comes out this fall and is at the top of my design list.

Do you read on public transportation?

Yes! It’s where I tend to read history and biography. I find reading that contains information less bothered by noise and interruption.

What qualities do you want in a book you’re read while traveling?

Subject matter that complements the mood and purpose of my travels. To a weekend at the lake, I’ll bring a combo like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams and Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons. For work trips, I prefer immersion into cultural history. Anything subtitled “A Social History of ____” is hard for me to resist.

What book have you never read but have always meant to? Do you think you will ever read it?

In theory I’d like to be able to talk with my partner about one of his favourites, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. It’s become my albatross.

What book do you pretend to have read, but in fact have not?

In my twenties I gave in to campus peer pressure and feigned having read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, without incident. Then I tried the reverse with Fifty Shades of Grey. It was getting a suspicious amount of praise in one of my social circles, so to have an informed opinion, I finally forced myself to actually read the thing. Serves me right.

If you could force a single celebrity to read a specific book in it’s entirety, who would you chose, and what book would you make them read?

As acclaimed as he is, I think Fred Astaire’s genius is still underestimated. So I’d like Tom Hiddleston to read musicologist Todd Decker’s study Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz. Decker makes the case for Astaire as a progressive-minded and influential jazz artist by analyzing his musicianship, choreography, and creative relationships with band leaders and composers. I’d hope he would then be intrigued enough to spearhead (and star in) an indie Astaire biopic. Something offbeat, prismatic, and elliptical like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. Hiddleston is the first actor I’ve ever felt might get and be able to convey Astaire’s personal earnestness, his on-screen sardonic charm, and his gossamer dancing grace.

What book(s) are you reading right now?

Lily Tuck’s Sisters and The Visitors by Catherine Burns (both scratched my current Daphne du Maurier itch). The Book of Salt by Michelle Truong, a historical novel about Binh, a gay Vietnamese exile inspired by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s cook. In the last bit of fresh air before the Toronto International Film Festival starts, I’m trying to read ahead by making my way through Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke and finishing Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. But mainly I’m being melancholy about the end of summer (and the last of my lake swims) and savouring Gillian Best’s The Last Wave. Technically I am also reading The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell (in NetGalley format) ahead of its publication, but I will definitely be buying it when it hits shelves in North America.


photograph of Nathalie Atkinson by Kalpna Patel