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Edward Keenan: Growing up Gonzo and Wanting to be Tom Wolfe

Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs Edward Keenan, eight time national magazine award nominee, lead columnist and senior editor for Toronto’s The Grid, and author of the forthcoming book Some Great Idea. Keenan shares his bookshelves with his wife, Rebecca, and their three children in their home in the Junction, in Toronto’s west end. The shelves are the clear focal point of the family dining room, and even the youngest, still toddling member of the family wanted to show off her favourite book—the ever classic Goodnight Moon—before wondering away to play elsewhere.

None of this is organized in anyway. Partly because we’re still in that stage of fixing the roof, and making sure the kitchen’s all good, more so than organizing any of the books. But at the same time, Rebecca has more of an impulse to organize than I do. I kind of like just finding things. I like that when I’m looking for something, I find a bunch of other things. It seems to me to be part of the charm of traditional libraries, that internet search capabilities kind of—with digital searching you definitely find what you are looking for, but you don’t have happy accidents as often.

I have this really corny sense in my head that identity is made up of what you know and what you’ve experienced, and then what you’ve done, I guess. But a lot of what I know—a lot of my experiences, are actually the things I’ve read. I spend a lot of time reading, a lot of what I know about the world, my understanding of the world and of how people think, a lot of it comes from books. So it’s really hard for me to throw away something, because it’s like a piece of myself is in that book.

In my development as a writer, and I know he’s often mocked now—My Dad gave me this Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, as well as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby, which I don’t have now, I must’ve loaned it to somebody. I went to journalism school and found a lot of other people who went there because they wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. I went to journalism school because I wanted to be Tom Wolfe. When I read him in high school, I got a sense that journalism, nonfiction writing, that it could be a really vibrant and entertaining and a great form of literature.

And then like every other twenty-something young male—and possibly a lot of females too—I got obsessed with Hunter Thompson. A woman I was dating in my first year of University…I was such a Thompson evangelist at the time, and a really irresponsible party animal—which I excused by trying to make it in my head at least to make it seem like some kind of literary project…But somebody I was dating at the time gave me this book, and then suggested that I have this tattooed on my shoulder. She would pay for it, a gift for my birthday. I don’t think, actually, that I’m much of a gonzo journalist. And I’m far more sober than I was in my 20s, but it’s still part of my literary self. And it’s actually part of my physical self now, too—I have this tattooed on my shoulder.

I feel like, when I read about other authors and writers talking about literature, y’know more literary people, I feel a lot like a dilettante. Or, I feel—I’m not a subject area expert on anything; I’m very self-educated. I dropped out of university. Also, my taste tends to…I’ve read a lot of the books that most kind of literary people have read. I don’t have any obscure passions.

The most important discovery to me as a writer, influence-wise, was David Foster Wallace. I have all his books. I have a lot of books I haven’t read, but The Pale King I haven’t read on purpose. I started it, I got a hundred pages in, and then I realized at that point that if I finished it I would run out of David Foster Wallace; there’d be nothing else to read.

I mean, of course it’s not finished by him, not polished him, but interestingly, like—I feel really awkward applying a literary theme or metaphor to a real person’s life, but at the same time, The Broom of the System ends in the middle of a sentence and Infinite Jest ends before the book’s climax. A theme of his finished work was certainly the unresolved nature of things. And the way that stories conclude arbitrarily. In a way there seems almost something fitting about this final book, which took him so long, not having been finished by him. I’m reluctant to say anything cavalier about the man’s suicide, and I don’t think that it was some kind of literary statement that he was making. I’m not trying to say anything like that. I’m just saying that as far as appreciating the work goes, there’s a life and art cross over in the provisional and unfinished nature of it.

I give away books. I don’t actually own a lot of my favourites, because I’ve given them away. I was actually thinking about especially significant books here, and there’s definitely one book that’s more significant than some of the others, it’s Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang, which I don’t have. I have a really crappy book that he wrote, The Collector Collector. I hate this book. I mean, hate’s a strong word, I just didn’t really like it. But The Thought Gang, which is a book about a bank robber who uses philosophy to rob a bank, is a a dynamite book. I just love it so much. When Rebecca and I got together, I was working as a cook and she was a waitress, and I had just bought that book down the street. I was sitting there in the restaurant reading it, and she came up and was like, “Oh, that’s a great book.” We started talking about the book and made arrangements to get together and talk about other things. I have bought and loaned—or, I guess, given away, so theoretically “loaned” about five copies of that book.

I have very little poetry. Not because I don’t like it, but maybe I don’t appreciate it. I don’t know. But I do have a few books by John Stiles. He’s a poet that I personally know, though I haven’t seen him in, uh, probably eight or nine years. He writes these poems about Halifax and the Annapolis Valley. John Stiles’s poems demand to be read out loud. So much of it is about dialect, but also when I read them out loud I can hear his voice. “A Halifax Snowstorm” is the first poem in this book, Creamsicle Stick Shivs, but I can just hear him reading it, y’know, “But Jesus girl, wouldja take off yer goddamned top en let that stunning church of a tit fall out your blouse,” but I can also see him on a Halifax street corner with the snow blowing in his eyes trying to say that to his girlfriend.

I have a weird relationship with books by people I know. Like, The Chairs are Where the People Go, by Misha Glouberman, as told to Sheila Heti. I loved it so much. I know Misha, he appears as a character in my book, and it’s like, Misha, one of his greatest talents in the world is that he’s great at conversation. I found this book to be like having a really good long conversation with him. And I know that’s how it came about; he and Sheila would talk and she wrote it into the book. I still think it’s really smart and well told and engaging, but I have no way of evaluating it in a way that would let me know how someone who had never met him would encounter the book. Because I can hear him narrating it to me. Which I think means Sheila did a really good job of putting it together. It’s an accurate reflection of his voice, and such clear headed advice for life too.

There’s a lot of books that I own that I haven’t read. I used to live in a warehouse space, it was a sublet, and the person we were subletting it from couldn’t take all of his books with him to his new apartment. So we were like, custodians of a library of probably 30,000 books. Floor to ceiling bookshelves lined the whole entire place. People would always come in and say, “Have you read all these books?” And, so I would start telling people that I hadn’t read them all but that I loved living with them, and that I’d looked at a lot of them. The writer Brian Joseph Davis said that “Have you read all these?” is the kind of question that people who don’t read much ask, because people who read a lot know that with buying books your eyes might be bigger than your… eyes. In the sense that, it’s like, the things that I’d like to read, that I think it’s important to read, is a much longer list than I could ever get through. And then there’s always new stuff being added to it.