This feels like “fun with books & writing” week. First, we can read Betsy Kepes’ fine updates on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference happening in Seattle. But right now the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is also presenting their 13th annual “Canada Reads” event. (Think “battle of the bands”, only with books.)
For those unfamiliar with the exercise, a selection process produces a slate of finalists. Each book in the final round has a champion, usually a celebrity of some sort – though not always famous and not necessarily ones you’d expect. In the final four-day “contest”, each champion advocates their book’s merits through pitches, discussion and debate. One book is eliminated per day until a winner emerges. (“Losing” champions are still on the panel to help pick the final winner.) The last book standing, in theory, is one worthy of being read across the nation, and beyond.
The books in the running for each edition of Canada Reads are announced several months before the programs are broadcast. Titles must be Canadian fiction, poetry or plays. They are promoted in bookstores, in the hope that the Canada Reads audience will purchase and read them all before the programs air. In some cases, publishers have published special editions of the nominated titles.
The publisher of the winning Canada Reads title donates a portion of sales proceeds from the winning book to a charitable organization working in the field of literacy. Recipients have included Frontier College, the Movement for Canadian Literacy, ABC Life Literacy Canada (formerly ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation) and Laubach Literacy of Canada.
Here’s a skeleton sketch of the 2014 finalists: Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, defended by philanthropist Stephen Lewis; The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, defended by aboriginal journalist Wab Kinew; Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, defended by two-time gold medalist and world record-holder Donovan Bailey; Cockroach by Rawi Hage, defended by Daily Show comedian Samantha Bee and Annabel by Kathleen Winter, defended by rising actor Sarah Gordon. (See more about each book, their author and defender here.) And while it’s important to support authors and bookstores, one need not buy them all – many of those titles are readily available in libraries too.
These all sound like good books. Indeed, I waxed rhapsodic about The Orenda in an earlier, meandering post, after a trip made me curious about the historic site where parts of the novel were set. And Betsy Kepes reviewed it for NCPR in January. Spoiler alert: Wab Kinew is doing a breathtaking job of talking up The Orenda as the novel Canada needs to read now, because, he says, it speaks to this nation’s biggest unresolved social issues: reconciliation for past injustices, the need for more harmonious existence between natives and settlers today and the importance of regaining proper appreciation for our natural environment. (But you know what? Each champion is shining in their own way.)
I love the idea of promoting a more literate society – you know, making reading feel cool, fun and important. Instead of dis-ing it, as is more often the case in our sea of western materialism. Of course, this is the CBC – which caters to a more bookish segment of the general population. But I am slightly amazed (and quite pleased) to live in a country that values reading this highly.
I hasten to add there is LOTS to dislike in this construct. Starting with sensationalist hype to create an imaginary “event”. Or pitting book against book as if this was a boxing match or a beauty pageant. (Really, it borders on lame round-up of every cliche from the worst of reality TV.)
But sometimes things succeed in spite of reasons they should not. It helps that this year’s finalists are interesting, distinctive works of fiction. CBC has tried to add extra intensity (beyond mere reading for pleasure) with a supplemental focus: Which of the final nominees can best inspire social change?
I think it’s fair to say that’s a loaded question. How is “best” going to be defined? What counts as “social change”? This being CBC, in come the usual sacred causes: the environment, racial tensions, unresolved issues about Canada’s indigenous people, the immigrant experience and gender issues. Don’t get me wrong. Those are all important causes. I’m simply noting what’s not at that table: law & order issues, the damage done to society by the abandonment of personal responsibility, the need for a vibrant business environment, the rights of the unborn…you get the idea. (There’s still a cool kids table and conservatives aren’t even in the cafeteria.)
OK, so I don’t like the concept and I would argue the deck is stacked. So why do I recommend tuning in? Because the voices around the table are just that good. (Dare I say “riveting”?) It’s hosted by the very able Jian Ghomeshi – who you aren’t hearing as the usual host of ”Q” this week because he’s busy doing a stand-alone Canada Reads episodes instead.
The champions/defenders have brought different life experiences and strengths to the fore. There have been a few instances of strategic voting thus far, and that will likely sharpen in the next few days. But these are articulate, insightful people who have read all the books and have a lot of interesting points to make. It’s been a real, vibrant, thoughtful discussion. There’s plenty of passion on display, but it’s not just some stupid knife fight.
Maybe the eventual winning book will foster social change. Maybe not. One book – however good – can only do so much toward redressing the many ills that will always plague humanity. (I mean, really! We already have the Bible. The Torah. The Koran. And so on. For everyone who would argue that a full-on holy book is all the world needs to live well, others would counter that sacred texts have also been a source of unhappiness and strife.)
But that’s the beauty of books. They give pleasure, they educate, they make us think and they get people talking.