Shelf life: writers take us through their collections

Ahead of this year’s Dublin Book Festival, we ask some of the participating authors to tell us the stories behind the books in their personal collections

Alex Barclay

My livingroom bookshelves are my favourite part of the house. They arrived as big, filthy, spider-covered pieces of oak that were beautifully transformed. I have other, messier bookshelves, but for some reason I like these ones to be tidy, even though authors’ series are split across different shelves and other rooms in the house. It would drive an orderly person nuts. I am only intermittently orderly.

Among the books up there are those I got as gifts, ones written by friends, signed ones, ones whose launch night I was at. They cover a range of years. The oldest include the John Sandford collection: some of the first crime novels I read. His hero, Lucas Davenport, was a memorable one for a teenage girl: a tall, dark, handsome man in plaid, catching bad guys in the snow.

I still look at the writers’ names on my shelves and think how insane it is that I have the same job. I also see those whose books I read and loved before I ever started writing and who I now know and have shared crime-writing panels with.

I appreciate the hard work writing involves, which is why I could never describe any book as a guilty pleasure. I love books, I collect them, and my only guilt comes from the fact that over the past few years I have failed miserably to get around to reading a lot of them. I find that if I’m reading at the moment, it’s research.


Different books in my collection stand out for different reasons, but to choose a few: the early edition of Rebecca, one of my all-time favourite novels, was a gift from my dear friend,'s Vanessa O'Loughlin. There's the brilliant John the Revelator by Peter Murphy, who introduced me to the writing of Tom Spanbauer, also up there. Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White was a surprise gift in the post from a gorgeous woman I chatted with in a coffee shop about writing. I was so touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture; I had mentioned it was on my list to read. Books create great connections.

So there are the stories within the books and the stories that surround them. They’re more than just books on shelves; they’re all kinds of wonderful memories.

Kevin Barry

As we're about to put our own journal out into the world, I wanted to show some of the inspirational ones we have lying around the place. There are svelte copies of Sti nging Fly here and of gorgeous Gorse. I'm a particular fan of Tin House from Portland, Oregon: they're beautifully produced and they've accepted stories from me. There's a White Review, a Stonecutter, a Southword, a Penny Dreadful and some Paris Reviews, whose craft interviews I'm addicted to.

Design-wise, the books from Pushkin Press are always fine objects. There are a few interlopers on the shelf, as I'm not really into systems. One is the absolutely stunning Nick Drake book put together by John Murray publishers recently – I'm obsessed with his song Riverman to the extent I've been trying to write a story based on it since early summer; no joy yet, but I'll persevere. There is a beautifully illustrated and informative book about cows. A book about Virginia and Leonard Woolf's garden is there, a splendid account of gardening, writing, publishing and household economics.

The shelf also houses my current reading: Outline by Rachel Cusk and the collected stories of Dermot Healy. And there's a signed edition from the great James Kelman, dating back to when I interviewed him for this paper in 2002.

  • Kevin Barry will launch the Winter Pages journal on November 12th, 6.30pm-8pm, in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

Louise Phillips

My shelfie of books is an eclectic mix, including classics, thrillers, short-story collections, literary and genre fiction and a relatively even split between Irish and international writers, as well as male and female authors.

This wasn’t intentional. If I was to attribute the diversity to anything, it would be my early reading experience: borrowing books from the library and browsing the shelves without the influence of others.

AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories and poems are up there too. It's a favourite of mine and a current much-loved bedtime read of my bookaholic granddaughter.

Of the collection of books scattered throughout the house, Mary Wesley features more than most. It's a long time since I've read one of her books, but I do recall her sharp and critical eye, writing with both humour and compassion. When I returned to writing a number of years back, I consoled myself that Wesley's first adult novel was published at the ripe old age of 71, so there was still hope.

Looking at this shelf of books, I wonder about all the missing ones, especially those I read in my teens, such as Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Clown by Heinrich Böll and so many more, including my guilty pleasures from adolescence, novels by Virginia Andrews, such as Flowers in the Attic and My Sweet Audrina. Other missing books would include The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly and tons more.

Thinking about it now, my mission for 2016 will be to acquire copies of my favourite books that have mysteriously ended up elsewhere and, of course, to keep finding new ones.

Marty Whelan

The author I have the most books by is the satirist Alan Coren – of BBC Radio's News Quiz and Call My Bluff, and editor of Punch magazine – many of which are collections of his wonderful newspaper columns.

As for guilty pleasures, that would be all my Richard Nixon books. I have a signed first edition of his that I found in the famous Strand Book Store in New York city.

Who is missing from the collection? Lots, but particularly a proper PG Wodehouse collection. There's a few on there I haven't managed to finish, including The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman and, of course, Ulysses.

Probably my most valuable one is a signed copy of Gay Byrne's The Time of My Life with an inscription: so kind. He is the master, after all.

  • Marty Whelan takes part in Dublin City Public Libraries Readers Day, on November 14th from 10am-1pm in Smock Alley The Dublin Book Festival takes place November 12th-15th.