In a world where superfluous information is increasingly torrential, what could possibly be of less interest to more people than the bestseller list? Weekly, monthly or annually, this is a list of statistics that really can’t be significant to very many people.
Generally speaking I manage to ignore the huge amount of space wasted printing the lists (and there are a ridiculous number of them, with ever more sketchy permutations), but last week my beautiful wife pointed out with a certain amount of glee that The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien appeared on both the fiction and the non-fiction lists.
A writer should have a talent for complaining. It’s the nature of the job: the restaurant review, the analysis of military spending, and the tell-all memoir are all various forms of kvetching. But no one wants to hear us complain about writing or the difficult life of a writer.
Yes, there are things about this work that frustrate me. When a reader complains solely based on a headline I didn’t write, when an editor cuts my favourite sentence, when the wrong photo runs with the story, when I need to email or phone five different people at the office to get a simple answer because I’m a freelancer and I can’t see who’s in today, my jaw begins to grind as I look around my living room/dining room/office in search of something to smash.
The unveiling last week of the five titles vying for the 2013 version of Canada Reads inspired more than the usual misgivings.
One is hesitant to criticize anything that brings attention to books and reading, but Canada Reads has always, at least in the mind of this less that unbiased observer, been at best a mixed blessing.
If your book is fortunate enough to be chosen for inclusion in the weeklong slugfest the only certainty is that four out of the five celebrity panelists will start to denigrate it after the opening bell.
First off, I know from book launches. Because our store is such a centrally located and welcoming space, and because we have a reputation for being willing to host (or sell books at) even the most unpromising book events, we get to see a lot of book launches, (and it isn’t always pretty.)
Book launches come in all shapes and sizes so it isn’t always easy to set out rules of deportment. If, for example, you’re the parent, sibling, or offspring of the author you’re in for the duration, so matter how excruciating the prospect might be to you, so try not to get completely plastered and try to be as supportive as you can be.
Stephen Fowler, the proprietor of Toronto’s beloved secondhand bookshop The Monkey’s Paw, tells me he’s a little overwhelmed as I walk into his store Tuesday morning. “We were on BoingBoing! And CBC!” he says, summing up some of the press coverage for the shop’s brand new Biblio-Mat.
The Biblio-Mat is a vending machine for old books. You put in $2, and magic comes out. The Monkey’s Paw is a curious place, full of beautiful printed artifacts. It has been described as an elegant morgue, a necropolis even, for printed matter, but really it’s a repository of brilliantly useless pleasures. Where else would you find a Christmas Cocktail book from the late 1950s shelved in proximity to vintage political primers? The Biblio-Mat seems right at home in the back corner, an alluring reminder of the sweet capriciousness of browsing for books.
With Old Man Winter breathing down our necks, and the first strains of Christmas Muzak filtering in through tinny supermarket speakers, the end of the year is suddenly on my mind. Which means I’m already dreading the Best Books of 2012 lists. I can’t help it; I hate them, and they’re already starting to trickle in, one useless slide show after the other.
“Best” is just such a loose and facile qualifier to apply to the contents of a calendar year, even if this one has has been chock full of new releases from veritable heavy hitters. Steven Heighton, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Linda Spalding, Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, Hilary Mantel, Chris Ware, Annabel Lyon, Salman Rushdie, and Paul Auster all had new books this year—even David Foster Wallace managed to publish something posthumously (again). Which of these are better than the others, and why? Tell me in a hundred words or less. And those are just the already cannonically safe bets.
At a certain point this Tuesday night, Jack Rabinovitch will step up to the microphone in front of a packed ballroom and a national television audience and recall sitting down with his friend Mordecai Richler and coming up with the idea of creating a memorial to his late wife Doris Giller.
You have to wonder whether, even in his wildest dreams, Jack could have imagined what a mighty impact that meeting would have on the Canadian cultural landscape. The Scotiabank Giller Prize has become the gold standard in Canadian letters since its inception in 1994, with unparalleled influence on readers and book buyers, and an annual shot in the arm for an industry that seems parlous at the best of times.
Will Schwalbe was in town this weekend to promote his new book The End of Your Life Book Club, and I caught up with him Sunday morning, in a crowd of 150 book lovers who’d negotiated the marathon-tangled streets of the metropolis to attend brunch.
Schwalbe gave one of the most memorable presentations we’ve ever had. His book is tailor-made to my own sensibilities, so there’s a built-in bias that I must confess, but he spoke at length about the transformative power of reading and of physical books, and how they provide not just personal pleasure but cultural glue. It was brilliant.
Among the varied and many satisfactions that come with my job, author events rank pretty high. Sometimes they make us money, sometimes they don’t, but they always serve to remind us why it is that we got into the book business in the first place. (hint: it wasn’t in hopes of getting wildly wealthy…)
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the annual explosion of money and seemingly inevitable controversy, the Nobel Prizes. Once we get through the awards for things that hardly anyone knows anything about but are incredibly important, like Science and Medicine, we can get to the juicy ones that everyone knows everything about, but are vastly less important, like Peace (occasionally known as the Black Humour Prize) and the one that’s dearest to my heart, and my business, Literature. Which means, of course, that the usual suspects (the American media are insistent in pushing one of their own, especially after they were described as “insular” by a Nobel judge a few years ago) are hauled out as due, and/or unfairly overlooked, and the committee is accused of politicization, or worse, group lunacy (we won’t go there), and there is a brief flurry of interest (or panic because the books aren’t available) in the writer so honoured.
“Surprised” is not a word that should readily spring to the lip when the shortlist for a literary prize is announced. “Appalled” works. “Disappointed” will do. (Last year’s Booker shortlist was considered so lowbrow that a certain infuriated segment of the industry threatened to institute a new prize to celebrate more literate writing.) “Surprised” should not occur, even to jaded insiders who think they can augur the tastes of the jury in whose hands the decision rests. No one should ever be surprised at what a jury can come up with, especially in a field as diverse and subjective as fiction. That does not stop a lot of people who should know better from sniping at inclusions and bemoaning omissions.
Given the hoopla around the annual awarding of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, it’s worth remembering that the prize is still in its relative infancy. Not yet 20 years old, the award is widely considered Canada’s most prestigious prize, likely because...