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21 South African Reads

21 South African Reads

To celebrate 21 years of really good reading in COUNTRY LIFE, Henrietta Dax of Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town chooses 21 enduring South African titles

Words: Nancy Richards.

Pictures: André Sales.

Henrietta Dax at Clarke's Bookshop

“As a bookseller, everyone thinks I’ve read everything – it’s a terrible burden,” says Henrietta Dax with a laugh. She may not have read everything but, over the decades she’s been in the business, she has developed a relationship with books that makes them like family – a very extended family.

Henrietta took over Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town’s vibrant Long Street in 1981. She’d worked for original owner Anthony Clarke for a while and, before that, at Exclusive Books and Stuttafords Book Department. “I absolutely loved it at Stuttafords,” she remembers. “I worked with the legendary Miss Cranfield, and Pieter-Dirk Uys and Brian Astbury used to pop in and have tea at the Bird Cage.”

“Every independent bookshop,” she believes, “is inevitably curated to reflect the taste of the owner,” and what reflects at Clarke’s is that her taste is both broad but selective. “New and second-hand South Africa, out-of-print, valuable and general second-hand,” she quotes their mandate. “So we have books from 1650 up to the very latest release. And in the end it’s the customers who are our readers and reviewers.”

In terms of numbers, new books now outsell the old and, interestingly, two of their most asked for books are Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like. What saddens her, though, is that some books go out of print when they shouldn’t. “Less than five per cent of books published really stand the test of time.” Part of her daily endeavour is to keep feelers out for those that do. “At auctions, or when people are moving house or clearing out. Some people have even left their books to us in their will. It’s quite extraordinary to see how people’s libraries reveal the lives they have led.”

Looking back on choosing 21 titles for the COUNTRY LIFE milestone, she says “At first I thought I’d battle to find ten – now I wish it had been 50. It was a combined effort. We (she and her team Isabel Birkby and André Sales) walked around the shelves – and they just kept popping out. Love is too strong a word, but finally we chose on the basis of the deep affection we have for these books. André swears by Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull (he personally has sold hundreds of copies), Isabel chose Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona as a must – it’s about to go into reprint. Me, I would like to have slipped in Zoë Wicomb’s October – but we have one of hers on the list already.”

She sighs and agonises further over leaving out Eve Palmer’s The Plains of Camdeboo. “This is the hardest list I’ve ever had to make.” But, finally, she says of the choice, “These books, not in any order of importance, are what South Africans can be proud to have on their shelves.” 

These are the 21 books Henrietta chose:

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