Explore the 2024 Program

Beyond the Bookshelf

The latest literary analysis and writing

How many molecules of Julius Caesar’s dying breath do we inhale each time we breathe?  

This is the question posed to Nick Earls (Empires) at the start of his medical degree forty years ago. He doesn’t recall the exact answer but the question later shaped extraordinary discoveries of interconnectedness; an uncovering of how “stories circulate over and over”, coincidences tumbling into lives like molecules. 

While writing would connect Nick to others and the world – wondrously, serendipitously – it severed connection for Kristen Roupenian (‘Cat Person’). “Writing didn’t serve the purpose I wanted it to, which was to fix the fundamentally broken relationship between myself and other people,” Kristen says. “Reading – slowly, over decades – did.” 

When I read, I was finally alone in my head.
Kristen Roupenian, 'The Author, the Work, and the No. 1 Fan'

Reading can insulate you from an anxiety-inducing world, creating an abstracted solitude that mutes the incessant whirring voices of others as definitively as the turning of a page – or it can join you to a community. “What I want with my books, with my characters, is for those individuals to see themselves, to feel free to come into this space. Knowing they're welcome, that they're part of a community that looks like them, that sounds like them,” says Nicole Dennis-Benn (Patsy). “I want to provide a whole mirror up for them to see themselves in my legends.” 

But what if that mirror reflects your greatest fears instead? “I read [Fever Dream by Samanta Scheblin] and felt as if my heart was being cleaved from my body,” says Lisa Taddeo (Animal). 

Or doesn’t reflect you at all? The Paris Review’s ‘Feminize Your Canon’ series brings “underrated and underread female authors” into view.

In 1954, a nineteen-year-old poet walked unannounced into the office of the literary editor of Roshanfekr (The Intellectual), one of Iran’s most prestigious magazines. Her fingers were stained with green ink, and she trembled with nerves as she handed over three poems.
Joanna Scutts, ‘Feminize Your Canon: Forough Farrokhzad’

Maybe, during these times, we do not wish to see a mirror at all, just the many pixellated faces of friends on our screens. For Jocelyn Hungerford, such faces make her room “bright and somehow full, even though it’s just me and the cats. I’ll carry these people with me for the rest of the day.” 

Perhaps we just need to hear a really good conversation between people we admire. The Principle of Charity podcast demonstrates that two people of conflicting views – on climate change, AI, vegetarianism – can come together respectfully, curiously to understand one another. 

Or see what love lessons lie amidst the monsteras in this 44-year old plant shop in Manhattan run by a husband and wife.  

Turn on a cartoon – perhaps the surreal, whimsical and emotional creations of Lisa Hanawalt (BoJack HorsemanTuca & Bertie) who has an “uncanny ability to metabolise private thoughts and regurgitate them onto the screen." 

With the present reality constrictive and confining, why not create your own with this guidance from Donal Ryan (Strange Flowers) on writing a great short story.

Whichever way stories come to you or from you, the books that hold them are powerful.

Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been – in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again.
Malala Yousafzai, ‘I Survived the Taliban. I Fear for My Afghan Sisters’