I’m nostalgic for the days when writers and poets personally recommended and championed books for Canada Reads, rather than producers offering celebrities a list of books and inviting them to select a book they feel could win the competition.
The writer-defenders seemed to be fans of multiple books who truly hated to vote any one of them out of the competition. Now, the celebrity-defenders openly strategize and every spoken word is directed towards their efforts to win.
But perhaps this is how it always was, and my younger-reading-self was naive. Regardless, the program gets people talking about books: I applaud that!
CURATED CONTENT SPOILER-FREE (BOOKS AND DEBATES)
COMMENTS AT THE VERY BOTTOM? SPOILER-FULL!
Tahmoh Penikett, defending American War by Omar El Akkad
Mozhdah Jamalzadah, defending The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Jeanne Beker, defending Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
Greg Johnson, defending Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
Jully Black, defending The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
I’ve read all but Sharon Bala’s novel this year, and I’ll get to it eventually!
Once a cornerstone of the debates, defenders no longer quote the works they are representing. The writer’s voice and characters’ voices are always filtered. On this first day, I would have loved to have more of a taste of the actual books.
“The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
Omar El Akkad’s American War
“Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?”
Sharon Bala’s The Boat People
“Elsewhere students were clustered at cars, jockeying for rides home. Such moments always felt strange to me – as if Jake and the other kids were members of a safari tour driving through the African veldt, observing the strange habits of its wildlife.”
Craig Davidson’s Precious Cargo
“Poisoning your own drinking water, changing the air so much the earth shook and melted and crumbled, harvesting a race for medicine. How? How could this happen? Were they that much different from us? Would we be like them if we’d had a choice? Were they like us enough to let us live?”
Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves
“Canadians arrived completely unprepared for the brutality of the situation. Hastings was worse than any rumour that had been conjured up. Not in their wildest dreams had Japanese Canadians thought they’d be locked up in cattle stalls among lice and manure. These were people: moms and dads and kids and grandparents. They had done nothing wrong. Their lives had been stolen. Everything was gone and there they sat in cattle stalls. Their sole crime being Japanese.”
Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness
This year’s defenders pepper their comments with niceties, like “with all due respect”, but the debate in the second show escalated in intensity on more than one occasion.
As host Ali Hassan observed, it got messy for radio listeners. (It was just as messy for online viewers, but you could watch other things on the screen while voices spiralled and volume increased.)
Whether or not alliances have been struck officially or not (off-camera, as has been rumoured in the past), some of the panelists’ priorities obviously conflict and others align: the discussions in this episode reveal those tendencies.
Ultimately the lines appear to be drawn most deeply on the matter of light versus dark, whether readers want to have their eyes opened to difficult subject matter.
This is not a new point of division: in past years, other books have been dismissed because they were despairing (Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Anosh Irani’s The Song of Kahunsha, for instance, and more recently Sheila Watt-Clouthier’s The Right to Be Cold).
But with this year’s theme it’s a little strange because another argument which resurfaces repeatedly is whether readers need their eyes opened to subject matter or whether content is already familiar or well-known.
So in an effort to defend their specific book, a panelist can simultaneously argue that another book is telling a story which has already been told and no longer needs to open its audience’s eyes (intended as criticism) and that it would be better to have a familiar tale retold yet again than to force readers to examine darker material (intended as praise).
It would seem as though the voting throughout will fall on this question of light or dark, of hope or despair, which is unfortunate because this kind of binary thinking is at the root of so many of the problems explored in these stories.
Some participants are openly admitting their voting is strategic while others vociferously deny it (but when their votes directly contradict something they have previously said, it’s clear that they are voting strategically).
No more cacophony on-air (but still a few more tears) and the debate around the reasons for reading – the reasons for creating art, the reasons for consuming it – continues.
Should art expose the broken bits of the world or provide respite from those fractures?
Colum McCann says “The amazing thing about good writing is that it can find the pulse of the wound without having to inflict the actual violence. It is a way of recognizing the hurt without praising it or suffering it. Writing allows the illusion of pain, while forcing us to grow up and recognize our own demons.”
E.B. White says “In a free country, a writer’s duty is to have no duties.”
This is a deeply rooted debate, not confined to this annual broadcast event.
Ordinary readers debate the same matter regularly: some arguing that they face hard facts the rest of the time so their entertainment should be full-on entertainment, others arguing that it is a privilege to enter that state of denial, even temporarily, while others have no escape.
The producers aim to deal with this division by declaring that readers have a moral responsibility, and then set the panelists to debating the way in which they direct their responsibility.
So, this year, it’s a question of which book will open Canadian readers’ eyes.
But the debate doesn’t go anywhere, only becomes a matter of degree: theme or no theme, every reader has a personal understanding of how much a reader’s eyes need opening and the idea of a moral obligation becomes about ‘how’ open.
Are we squinting readers or wide-eyed readers?
And how far do readers cast their gaze?
It’s no surprise that this question of Canadian-ness comes up in a program called “Canada Reads”. This year, from the announcement of the title alone, some folks have grumbled about American War‘s inclusion.
In past years, books about the immigrant experience were often said to be “important” but not necessarily books for “all Canadians to read”. Books like Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony and George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls were described as being too specific for every reader to relate to the story.
(Maybe it’s no longer acceptable to express this openly, but I don’t think the attitude has changed a whole lot. Loyal Canada Readsè fans will remember the terrorist/revolutionary debate in 2012. Has that really changed?)
Novels set outside the borders of what is now Canada were challenged for being not Canadian enough either, like Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Rawi Hage’s Cockroach. (But it’s not simple: Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes won in 2009 and The Illegal in 2016.)
And as much as I love Lisa Moore’s February and Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness (which won in 2013 and 2006 respectively), for instance, it seems clear that the book all Canadians should read is most often the book that privileged (often white) Canadians are most comfortable reading. (Although this year, four of the five selected books are by writers of colour.)
I think the debate this year, about American War‘s inclusion, is interesting because the premise of the novel is rooted in the idea of borders changing from what they are today, based on resource availability, and the conflicts which arise (personally and politically): it’s a story in which nation-hood has lost its meaning.
This idea, the idea of those who lack things wanting those things, on the ways the landscape shifts to accommodate those desires: this is the oldest idea ever and it’s not a Canadian idea, it’s a human idea.
Most of today’s listeners are feeling very secure in the idea of nation-hood, however. For most listeners’ lifetimes the borders of Canada have not altered since Newfoundland joined the union in 1949. Canada is Canada.
(Well, except for that business in the northern territories, which many settlers find threatening or irrelevant: Nunavut and all.)
But the border between the countries now called Canada and the United States has a history of being contentious. Powerful folks on the southern side of that “line” have historically wanted resources north of that line.
In recent weeks, conflict between the two countries has raged over trade agreements rooted in the American government’s sense of entitlement to Canada’s natural resources and the Canadian government’s historical reliance upon power wielded globally by the United States.
This border has been challenged more than many Canadians want to consider, whether through concerted invasions or episodes of terrorism and the government of Canada has become embroiled in war because of its relationship to the United States even recently. The dotted line we coloured around in social studies class as school-kids is not as secure as many people think, and ideas about inclusion and exclusion don’t necessarily have anything to do with geo-political borders anyway. And these ideas are integrally connected with one’s understanding of how these borders were established historically (and shifted throughout colonization) and the awareness that the indigenous people who originally and continually inhabit these lands comprise their own sovereign nations too.
It’s obviously political, but it’s also (perhaps surprisingly) personal – because when one votes for a Canada Reads title, one’s personal understanding of what it means to be a reader and how each reader views their position in the landscape comes into play.
And, then, there’s the matter of winning.
Experienced readers are experienced empathizers. Whether reading a lot of fiction or non-fiction, a voracious reader’s eyes are opened regularly and, sometimes, dramatically.
When asked to recommend other dystopian works of note, this year’s panelists struggled. With the exception of Tahmoh Penikett, who is apparently inspired by his father’s love of books to read regularly, the panelists couldn’t think of a single book to suggest when asked this question (in relationship to the two other books on the panel which could be described as dystopian works).
Which begs the question: if the event is designed to determine which book Canadians should read to open their eyes, should the representatives have read more than those five books (assuming that all five panelists read all five books – and I have my doubts about that).
Shouldn’t there be some kind of reference there? Shouldn’t they be able to say, for instance, something like, “I’ve read twenty books in the past year and THIS is the one which really opened my eyes and I think it would open your eyes too”.
Shouldn’t someone who, even temporarily, holds a position of being qualified to recommend a particular work of art have some general familiarity with that art form?
I’m not talking about a specialization, but just a familiarity. And I know it’s all relative. And everybody’s busy.
But shouldn’t you read more than five books a year before you start advising other people to value the books you choose above the books that others value?
Because it is all relative. Everything about this process, rooted in judgement is all relative. What someone says is ‘good’. What someone thinks is ‘enough’. All relative.
And relatively speaking, those people listening to and watching “Canada Reads” are expecting that the panelists who are defending/championing specific books are capable of determining whether they are worthwhile reading, relatively speaking.
The other day, I was listening to an early episode of the TIFF Long Take podcast, and a guest commented that he watches an average of 400 films a year. He watches the majority of these while travelling the film festival circuit (e.g. watching an average of five films daily during the Toronto International Film Festival) and he implied that he’d like to be able to watch more.
More than 400 films. For the past two years, I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to watch 52 films, because I used to love watching movies but the habit has gotten rusty. Last year, I had to squeeze in a couple of films at the end of December to reach my goal. And I’m not talking Criterion series here (maybe one or two): “Guardians of the Galaxy” rubs elbows with “Cape Fear” in my viewing log. I’m just talking about trying to secure a habit. If someone offered me a seat on the panel of Canada Watches, I would decline.
Part of the reason why I struggle to make time to watch films is that I read a lot. Last year, I read 281 books. Not just movie-watching gets put aside when you’re that obsessive about something.
All sorts of things are neglected in my life while I am overly attentive to books and stories. So when I inwardly question whether a panelist on Canada Reads has read ‘enough’ to be taken seriously when they recommend a book, I realise that my idea of a “lot” of books is bound to be different from other readers. (There are probably people out there who have watched 5 films in the past year, while I was struggling to watch 52 and someone else was sorry to have only managed 400.)
I could say that somewhere between 5 books and 281 books – that’s enough.
But who cares about ‘enough’ anyway? We might get lost in the weeds over that.
Can’t we all agree that it should be more than 5?
Because when someone reads more than five books a year, their ideas of what is eye-widening story-telling are more likely to overlap with another engaged reader’s idea of eye-widening.
This year’s Canada Reads winner is a worthwhile book indeed. No debate necessary.
But it’s only going to be an eye-opening read if reading five books is your idea of a lot of reading.