Negotiating With The Dead, by Margaret Atwood

Shelf Indulgence

Negotiating With The Dead, by Margaret Atwood

This edition of Shelf Indulgence takes a look at Margaret Atwood’s series of essays on reading and writing. Atwood is famed for her award-winning novels, but she is also a poet, academic, and a brilliant essayist. In 2000 she delivered the Empson Lectures at Cambridge University which, edited, became as a series of essays in Negotiating with the Dead. The book is divided into six chapters – each devoted to one aspect of the Writers’ Life (‘If that’s not an oxymoron,’ Atwood quips). She references other writers widely, from Dante and Chaucer to John Irving and Elmore Leonard, all with a refreshing absence of literary snobbishness.

Atwood has perfect pitch when communicating with her readers, and while Grimm’s fairy tales and Mesopotamian myths also feature, the whole is nicely balanced by anecdotes and pithy observations from her own experiences.

Told in her witty, sometimes laconic, style (I can hear her voice in my head as I read!) what emerges is part memoir, part essay, and completely absorbing.

In the penultimate chapter, Atwood tells the story of the first books she ever wrote. The description of how she came to be reunited with those little, hand-sewn texts fifty years later, is magical and deeply moving. Books,’ she says, ‘must travel from reader to reader in order to stay alive.’

What a beautiful sentiment.

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