Pulled from the Pages: Margin of Interest by Shane Neilson

You all know by now that I have a weakness for literary criticism. Books about books are kind of my jam.

Margin of InterestSo of course, I had to feature Shane Neilson’s upcoming book of cricitism, Margin of Interest, on the blog. First of all, you have to appreciate the fact that the book tackles the niche—and rather underrepresented—topic of Maritime poetry. Let’s give some love and attention to the hardworking poets on the coast! Second, I just love reading about authors writing about their unmitigated love of books. “Omigosh, that’s exactly how I feel when I pick up a special book” and “I would love to shop in that bookstore” and “I wish my mind could come up with a turn of phrase like that” are all thoughts that regularly occur to me as I read. This passage, excerpted from the essay “The Secret Door to the Secret Life” encompasses all my guilty pleasures when it comes to reading criticism. Read on to immerse yourself in this more personal essay from Margin of Interest.


From “The Secret Door to the Secret Life”

When did I enter the secret door, exactly? I’m not sure. I had been going to Doull’s [used bookshop] every week, buying poetry books with regularity, student loan money going up in smoke. The bespectacled guy behind the counter recognized me one day. He asked the obvious: ‘You like poetry?’

I was twenty-one years old, in the second semester of my first year of medical school, studying hard. I read medicine and poetry all the time. In between, which was as often as I could, I knocked on my girlfriend’s door. I read poems from Purdy’s Love in a Burning Building to her in bed.

‘Yes,’ I answered.

He left the counter and motioned for me to follow. Navigating past several teetering piles of books, he led me to a wall. Smiling, with a vaudeville flourish to his motions, he pushed … something. An unmarked door swung open into a secret room of books. With its book-hoarder mess and now a secret passageway, Doull’s felt like a mansion in a Scooby-Doo episode. ‘Go in and see if there’s any thing you like,’ he said, ‘ but check in with me before you leave the store.’ He left me there, unchaperoned.

The books here were quite different: meticulously alphabetized, sorted according to genre, organized according to country, and in mint condition. Unlike their fellows in the main store, these were meant to be found. The Canadian poetry selection was tip top: I remember the feel in my hands of Under the Ice, Alden Nowlan’s hardcover from the Ryerson Press in 1961. I pulled down Crediting Poetry, a beautiful Heaney Nobel Lecture hardcover from Faber that sold for $500. I put the book back on the shelf—bad mojo to hold books that expensive. I traced the cover of the first US edition of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth from Harper and Brothers, the drawings of human feet and shins seeming Vesalian to me.

I felt again like I was watching a Scooby-Doo episode, but this time at the point when an evil old millionaire scared off the meddling kids. Because I was touching material too powerful for me to understand, I got out of there. I walked past the man at the desk, trying to be conspicuous about the fact that I had no concealed books on me. With jacket unzipped and arms flared out, I said ‘Thank you’ while walking like a penguin.

Bored, he asked, ‘Did you close the door?’


I stopped going to Doull’s to moon and started going as a collector who buys. They took my name as a consumer of Nowlan first editions and called me when certain firsts got catalogued. Thrilled at the prospect of better, rarer books existing in secret, secure locations in the bookshops of Halifax, I ventured to the other used bookshops in the city and asked to be let into their secret rooms. Some had no secrets to offer, alas, save the scandal of shoddy poetry on their main shelves. Those that did keep secrets weren’t as clandestinely cool about them as Doull’s. Schooner Books, for example, had a basement which was plainly accessible through a battered red door. A sign said, ‘See seller for assistance.’ My education in poetry deepened, as did a sense of my place in medicine. These two elements are inter twined, soldered together with the heat of secret knowledge.

Thinking back, I walked through the secret door as if I were going through the looking-glass. I moved into a secret life that, apart from patients, is dedicated to books. Twenty years have passed since crossing the threshold for the last time at Doull’s. Since I left medical school, I haven’t gone back, even when in town on business. I leave the place alone and perfect, as a secret door to my past that is accessible only through the portal of poetry. By leaving the secret room alone, I will always possess a secret door to a secret room full of the best, rarest books that I will never be able to afford or read. Doull’s is as close to a divine desire as I have in this life.


PortraitHope you enjoyed reading this delightful essay from Margin of Interest, which will be available in a few short weeks. For more information about the book, visit the product page on our website!


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.