The South Island is more commonly associated with breath-taking scenery than literature but the vistas seem to have inspired a creative streak as there are plenty of great authors who hail from or were based in New Zealand’s South Island. There are also a healthy collection of book stores and libraries as well as book themed attractions to satisfy book worms.
So on our recent trip through the South Island I decided to check them all out and create this guide to the South Island for book lovers. Read on for info on the essential reads, places to visit and where to get your book fix in the South Island.
Books set in the South Island
The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Set in 1866 during the gold rush in New Zealand this novel tells the story of a man who arrives in a hotel in Hokitika on the West Coast and is immediately drawn into a group of men talking about some mysterious events in the town. The story weaves its way through the perspectives of many characters and at over 800 pages it’s not a light read. But it won the Man Booker Prize so if you’re looking for highly acclaimed NZ writing this is a must-read.
The Bone People – Keri Hulme
This book is an interesting view of Maori and European New Zealand. The main characters, an artist, a foster father and his son, all have connections to both the Maori and European world and experience of blending these two worlds in modern-day New Zealand. The book deals with mystery, romance, abuse and a clash of cultures. This is an iconic kiwi novel and is set along the South Island’s West Coast.
In My Father’s Den – Maurice Gee
Published in 1972, this novel has since been made into a feature film. The story begins with the murder of a teenage girl which takes place in Auckland but centres around the childhood home of the suspected murderer, the girl’s English teacher, on the South Island. The most important area being his father’s den which holds the key to the murder and a family mystery waiting to be solved.
Book Book - Fiona Farrell
This is a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up in Oamaru and attending university in Dunedin. It is the story of how books shaped her life and the events that were occurring in New Zealand and other parts of the world that coincided with the events in her favourite books. Any book lover will enjoy this and also gain valuable insight into life in NZ during several key times in history including post World War II.
Famous Authors from the South Island
There are only a handful of internationally known New Zealand authors but the South Island was home to a fair few. On your trip you can stop in at the former residences of Janet Frame (Oamaru) and Ngaio Marsh (Christchurch) as well as exploring significant areas for some other authors.
New Zealand has had two Man Booker Prize winners and both were female authors whose novels were set on the West Coast. Keri Hulme, resides on the West Coast and many of her novels feature the region including her Booker Prize winning novel, The Bone People. Eleanor Catton was the youngest author to ever win the Booker Prize with her novel The Luminaries which is also based on the West Coast.
Besides Janet Frame’s house Oamaru offers a lot for book lovers and collectors. In the Victorian precinct you’ll find a collection of bookshops selling everything from modern fiction to collectors items worth thousands. Make sure to reserve a couple of hours for browsing. We loved exploring:
This treasure trove of books is mainly focused on travel and adventure. You’ll find the shop in the historic area of Oamaru and recognise it straight away from the replica ship which sits just inside the door. The owner is very knowledgeable about books and has an incredible collection including many rare and signed books.
Housed in a beautiful historic building, even the staff dress the part to give this shop the feeling you’ve stepped back in time. They have a great range of New Zealand focused fiction and non-fiction as well as a few collector’s items as well as a huge variety of second-hand books.
This incredible shop sells a lot more than just books. In fact they are phasing out of book sales but for now all of their books are on sale and there’s a lot of them! You can find all kinds of book treasures dispersed among the antiques. It’s easy to spend an hour or so getting lost and discovering a bargain.
Dunedin was founded by the Scots and retains its Celtic feel and traditions. A large statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns takes pride of place in the Octagon (the centre of town) and most of the streets and suburbs have Scottish names, in fact Dunedin means Edinburgh in Gaelic.
Dunedin was named an official City of Literature in 2014 and there are plenty of literary secrets for book lovers to explore. Here were some of our top spots:
University Book Shop
This is by far the best bookshop in Dunedin and has been an institution since 1945. Stocking a huge range of books of all kinds from text books to the latest fiction releases and New Zealand authors. They also do gifts, stationery and art. My favourite part (the huge permanent sale floor where you could always find a bargain) has been reduced to a small corner down the back but is still worth a browse to find discounted books.
Otago University Library
The University library was completely rebuilt in 2001 and is a great example of a modern, world class study environment. My favourite feature is the individual study booths stretching four storeys on top of each other. The library is open to the public but bear in mind that if you visit during term time (particularly exams) there will be many students trying to study so be respectful.
This is a second hand bookshop that requires time. The books are organised into sections but the shelves are packed full and there are piles on the floor too. An absolute paradise for book worms who love a browse. Books are reasonably priced and there’s something for everyone!
Take a Literary Tour
You can take a guided tour through Dunedin and learn about its literary history, stories and poems featuring the city and the lives of some prominent authors who lived there. The tours last 1.5-2 hours and cost $25-35 NZD depending on which tour you choose. Find out more info on the Dunedin Literary Walking Tours website.
If you’re short on time or money you can download the newly released dtour app which pinpoints significant spots around the city that have a literary background or interesting story. Have a wander and see what you can find! Download here.
Other great book shops on the South Island
Volume – Nelson
This sweet little independent bookshop offers the most beautiful range of stock and can leave a book lover browsing for hours. It may look small when you enter but don’t be fooled, they only shelve one copy of each book (like a library) which means they can pack their shelves full of interesting titles even within a small space.
Little Book Shop – Lake Manapouri
There’s no opening hours at the little bookshop at Lake Manapouri. Simply turn up and ring the bell (a hanging bell not a doorbell) and the owner will appear from the house next door to open up. Stocking a range of second hand books in this little caravan the shop is a great stop on the way through to Te Anau or Milford Sound.
Scorpio Books – Christchurch
A plethora of books of all genres line the beautiful wooden shelves of Scorpios Books in central Christchurch. There’s something for everyone including a great kids section, gifts and cards. With incredibly helpful staff and comfy chairs for browsing you’ll want to stay all day!
Wanderlust Books – Alexandra
Alexandra probably isn’t high on your places to stop around the South Island but if you’re a book lover you might be tempted to pull in for a browse. The books here are all second hand and reasonably priced. It includes a good NZ section and plenty of non-fiction.
Second hand shops (op-shops)
If you’re looking to pick a cheap read you can’t go past the well-stocked op shops of NZ. A book rarely costs more than $2 and there are plenty of bargains to be found. From bestsellers to collector’s items you never know what’s been donated and is awaiting a new home. It’s also a handy way to drop off any books you’ve finished reading and help out a good cause.