An avid reader finds endless comfort in her favourite seat
Claire Mabey’s favourite chair was saved from a life of destitution at the tip. It now serves as her faithful reading assistant.
Words: Claire Finlayson
Claire Mabey has no idea whose bottoms occupied her favourite seat before she got her hands on it. But for someone currently in the throes of writing a fantasy trilogy for middle-grade readers (the first instalment of which hits the shelves in July 2024), a bit of mystery suits her just fine.
THE NASTURTIUM EFFECT
It wasn’t the chair’s wan 1970s upholstery that called loudly to Claire and her partner, Andrew Laking, when they spied it at Wellington’s Happy Valley Tip Shop; it was the thrift-sweet $5 price tag and the chair’s comfy embrace. The couple zhuzhed up the base with a bright, hand-knitted rug and left the backrest to sit proudly in its original beige skin.
Its best feature? “It sits underneath an artwork by Kate Woods,” says Claire. “She takes old painted photographs of landscapes and puts collage over them. I love the audaciousness of the nasturtiums. And how painterly and crafted they are. They’re alien in their mountain landscape but so joyful and determined.”
This Tip Shop escapee basks in the reflected glory of the artwork that presides overhead. It’s a precarious eminence for a piece of rescued furniture. “It would just be a shabby old chair if it were not for the painting.” Also, when Claire sits in that chair, she doesn’t even get to look at the art. “No, but I know that it’s there.”
It’s just as well the compelling nasturtium-obscured mountains can’t be viewed from the chair, for its sittee needs to muster total concentration for reading binges. Claire’s excessive book consumption is a lifelong joy and an occupational hazard. As a seasoned programmer of literary festivals (including the hugely popular Verb Wellington, which she co-founded with Andrew a decade ago), books chase her.
She’s currently the book editor of The Spinoff and co-curator of the writers’ programme, Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts (which kicks off in Wellington on 23 February), meaning her letterbox is book-choked almost daily. “I work from home most of the time, so books get sent to me, and I read them in that chair. It’s a crazy privilege.”
Reading isn’t just a job for Claire — it’s a full-blown pathological need. “I can’t go into a bookshop and not come out with a book. It’s an illness, but not one I’m willing to cure.”
Its symptoms showed up reasonably early in Claire’s life. “My most voracious period was when I was 10 to 12. I just ate books. I think it’s why I love reading young adult and middle-grade books now. I get that same transportation.”
She thinks the visceral book-hunger of her tweens is upon her again. “I feel like I’m getting back to that level of needing books as quite an essential part of life. They offer much solace, explanation and reassurance — especially in these times.”
PAPER VS KINDLE
Claire’s house is groaning with books. “They are everywhere.” The shelves in the lounge are double-stacked, and about 100 books teeter on bedside piles. She can’t look to Kindle for help, either. She’s too attached to the tactile joys of turning paper pages to yield to the touchscreen.
“It’s not that I’m being snobby — my brain just can’t do it. It’s strange. I’ve tried, but I think what happens is that there’s some cognitive connection between turning the pages and holding it in my memory.” Novels consumed electronically tend to disappear into a Mabey mental ether. “If I can’t see the whole book, I find it hard to grasp it. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth.”
NATIONAL READING DAY
Though she’s trained herself to be a zippy reader, Claire also has an in-house “slow living” coach who forces her into bouts of mindful book consumption. His name is Charlie, and he’s five years old. When he climbs onto his mum’s lap beneath those nasturtium-ed mountains and presses something like The Hobbit into her hands, she takes her foot off the reading pedal and tortoises for a bit.
Claire is resigned to the fact that books will always outpace her. “If you think of them as units of time, I’ve probably already got enough to see me through until the end.” She does have a cunning idea to increase those precious time units.
“I often think everyone would be better off if there were a national reading holiday — some way of honouring the fact that we should all be reading. You need time to read. It would be good to have a day off every year to do just that.”
She’s not wrong.