No Country for Old Books
by Brian Busby

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Early in 2003, Justin Trudeau cast a vote that remains unique in this country’s history. Whether Olympian, comedian, singer, sportscaster, actor, entrepreneur, astronaut, or runway model, no other Canadian has made so bold a decision. In the sixteen years that have passed, not even WWE Hall of Fame wrestler Edge (né Adam Copeland) has dared make a similar move.

On that winter day, Trudeau voted against Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a novel he had chosen to champion over the airwaves as “the book all Canada should read.” In doing so, he crowned Next Episode, Sheila Fischman’s translation of Hubert Aquin’s Prochain épisode, as the winner of the 2003 edition of Canada Reads.

The exact date of this historic moment has not been made public. Pre-taped in January, that particular installment of Canada Reads wasn’t aired until April 26. I like to think it was recorded on January 24, Feast Day of Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers.

Now in its seventeenth year, Canada Reads is by far the country’s most lucrative game show, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum. Random House Canada recognized its impact from the start, attributing the sale of 80,000 copies of Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion, to its 2002 victory as the very first Canada Reads winner. In that initial contest, Mary Walsh played host to five combatants: Steven Page (who championed In the Skin of a Lion), Kim Campbell (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), Leon Rooke (The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence), Megan Follows (A Fine Balance By Rohinton Mistry), and Nalo Hopkinson (Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke). I cheered on Rooke and Hopkinson, all the while certain that Kim Campbell would prove victorious. I misjudged the combative nature of the man who’d co-written “If I Had $1000000.”

What made the early years of Canada Reads particularly interesting is that participants had freedom in choosing their titles. This was before the constraints imposed by listener-created lists and the steady drip, drip, drip of vaguely worded themes dealing with social engineering and self-improvement: “One Book to Change Our Nation,” “One Book to Break Barriers,” “The Book Canadians Need Now,” “One Book to Open Your Eyes,” “One Book to Move You.”

The selection process today isn’t nearly so simple. My query to CBC Books about the book-selection process brought this response:

…the titles on Canada Reads each year are selected by participating panellists, through a kind of match-making process. Essentially, the CBC Books team works with each panellist directly, suggesting books to them based on their preferences and profiles as readers. Panellists are also welcome to suggest books and typically a number of titles are considered before each defender decides they’ve found the ideal book to champion.

In the 2003 contest, Trudeau went head to head with Will Ferguson, who pushed Paul Hiebert’s Sarah Binks, a satiric faux biography published when William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister. Two years later, Donna Morrissey chose to promote Rockbound, a 1928 novel by forgotten Nova Scotia writer Frank Parker Day. The University of Toronto Press, which had once published the work as part of its decades-dead Literature in Canada series, rushed to repackage it. (Note to publishers: Rockbound entered the public domain in 2001.) Rockbound went on to win the 2005 competition; it remains the oldest Canada Reads title.

I tuned in to those early contests as a fan. Sure, they weren’t to be taken seriously—Canada Reads bills itself as a “literary Survivor”—but the competition often raised awareness of worthwhile titles. And it was interesting to listen to contestants promote old favourites: books they’d read repeatedly over the years. What’s more, the show gave airtime to contestants like Nancy Lee and Roch Carrier, and I have loads of time for those two.

It was all good fun. Then, something happened in 2005 that caused me to question the contest. Not eight weeks before the next battle was to begin, it was announced that contestant Rufus Wainwright had bowed out. Molly Johnson was brought in as a substitute to champion Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, the very same book Wainwright had chosen. Did Johnson just happen to agree that Beautiful Losers was superior to the other four titles in competition? Had she even had time to read the competing titles? More to the point, did Molly agree with Rufus that Beautiful Losers, above every other title in our literature, was “the book all Canada should read”?

The Canada Reads press release reassured, quoting Johnson: “It’s a good match, given that I almost named my band, Infidels, Beautiful Losers!”

The following year, in the 2006 edition, John K. Samson of the band The Weakerthans scored a victory with Miriam Toews’ 2004 novel, A Complicated Kindness, recipient of the Governor General’s Award for English-language Fiction, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, the Canadian Bookseller’s Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, and the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award. In doing so, Samson bested actress Nelofer Pazira, who had promoted Joseph Boyden’s 2005 novel, Three Day Road, winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Amazon/ Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. Maureen McTeer didn’t do nearly as well as Pazira in defending Francis Itani’s Deafening, the 2004 recipient of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Scott Thompson failed to defend Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure, for which the Montreal author had received a 1968 Governor General’s Award. Susan Musgrave proved the boldest of the five contestants in choosing to promote a book that had never won an award: Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962–1996.

Nelofer Pazira questioned the inclusion of poetry in the contest and there hasn’t been a book of poetry in the competition since; not even when Humble the Poet served as a contestant.

Increasingly, Canada Reads seemed not so much about books Canada should read, but books Canada had read. Recent bestsellers began to dominate and there were award winners aplenty. The five 2014 titles—all published between 2009 and 2013—included a Scotiabank Giller winner, four Governor General’s Award nominees, three Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees, and a Booker nominee.

“My thanks to Canada Reads for making me aware of this title,” I wrote a friend following the 2017 victory of André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs.

The value of Canada Reads’ early years had everything to do with its ability to elevate under-appreciated, deserving titles like Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues, Mavis Gallant’s From the Fifteenth District, and Monique Proulx’s The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle. In 2009, Dave Bidini chose Paul Quarrington’s very good, very funny King Leary, a novel Random House had allowed to slip out of print. And so, as with Rockbound, there was a new edition.

The focus on award-winners and nominees from the previous few years made the contest less interesting, less relevant, and still I couldn’t stop listening. As years passed, I began to notice another emerging focus: the frontlist.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to CBC Books knows that its memory is short and its knowledge of the past shallow. Nowhere is this more evident than in its “100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian.” A 2014 list of “must-read books,” considering “everything from cultural impact and critical reception to reader response,” it somehow missed L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute. Though meant to consider writers who “call or once called Canada home,” it excluded Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, W.P. Kinsella, Malcolm Lowry, Antonine Maillet, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, W.O. Mitchell, Brian Moore, Farley Mowat, Leon Rooke, Sinclair Ross, and Wallace Stegner. More than half the titles on the “100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian” list were published between 2000 and 2013; seventy-nine had been published in the previous two decades. Eight were published in 2009, more than the sixties and seventies combined.

The average age of the five novels competing in the 2002 Canada Reads was seventeen years and eight months. The next year’s five had an average age of nearly twenty. These figures leap about during the competition’s first twelve years, the high coming in 2005, when the average was more than twenty-eight years. The low, four and a half years, came in 2011. These past six years have seen a significant shift to newer titles. The most extreme example is Sharon Bala’s The Boat People, which was published the very same month it was announced as a title in the 2018 competition.

The average age of the five novels in this year’s Canada Reads is fourteen months.

Graph: Julie Fish

This focus on the new is curious given that so many panelists have come to promote their books as tools to inform, reconcile, and heal past wrongs. In last year’s competition—“One Book to Open Your Eyes”—Jeanne Beker concluded the introduction to her chosen title, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness, with these words:

As a child of immigrants, I was taught that Canada was the Promised Land, brimming over with justice and generosity. I’ve since learned that this country’s had its share of darkness. Forgiveness sheds light on a shameful chapter in our history, but it also shows us that healing is possible with tolerance and compassion. The message for Canadians is a timely one: forgive in order to move forward, but never, ever forget.

Canada Reads has come to discourage older books. But in presenting the past only through contemporary eyes, context is lost. C.S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation: “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will not often see the real bearing of what is said.”

If referencing Lewis in an essay on a game show like Canada Reads seems ridiculous, I suggest tuning in to Le Combat des livres, the public broadcaster’s superior French-language equivalent.

This focus on frontlists is intentional, as evidenced by this CBC Books email to publishers last autumn:

I hope this message finds you well. I’m writing from CBC Books because it’s that time of year again! Time to ask for [the publisher’s]  recommendations for Canada Reads consideration. Please submit any suggestions for the 2019 season by end of day Monday, November 5th via this Google form.

As always, please be selective and suggest only top picks. Books need to be by Canadian authors, in English (translations welcome), in print and readily available to purchase. We are interested in books published this year and earlier, as long as they still feel relevant. Feel free to resubmit books you’ve suggested in the past. We will consider:

    • Novels or linked short stories—literary or genre
    • Nonfiction—memoirs, biographies and other narrative nonfiction
    • YA—topical, sophisticated/edgy enough to appeal to adult audiences

In addition to featuring excellent writing and storytelling, books should be relevant to contemporary Canada and geared towards a specific panellist.

Please see the attached document for anonymized reader profiles of this year’s Canada Reads panellists. We encourage you to consult these profiles as you think about possible suggestions. Panellists will be announced in January, along with the Canada Reads shortlist. Any information that might be inferred from these reader profiles should be considered strictly embargoed until that time.

We appreciate your help finding titles for Canada Reads 2019

Gone are the days when Whylah Falls, King Leary, and From the Fifteenth District were argued over. The exclusion of poetry, out-of-print books, and collections of non-linked short stories will come as news to Canada Reads listeners—it has never been mentioned on the show—but no line comes as a greater surprise than this one: “We are interested in books published this year and earlier, as long as they still feel relevant.”

Canada Reads is not about competing travel guides, and it’s not a battle of the phone books. The idea that of a novel, memoir, biography, or sufficiently “sophisticated/edgy” YA novel that’s “relevant” one year could be rendered irrelevant the next is simply bizarre, though it goes far in explaining what Canada Reads has become.

Focusing on the new does have its advantages. Hubert Aquin and Frank Parker Day cannot be reached for comment, but Lawrence Hill is alive and well and living in Hamilton. Authors of the represented books are interviewed on The Next Chapter, providing hours of airtime, and a significant amount of publicity during the weeks leading to the competition. They also meet those promoting their titles, and bonds are presumably formed. Interviewed on the February 19, 2019 edition of q, Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau, the defender of Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung, spoke of his hopes for the upcoming contest:

Imagine being, you know, fifteen, sixteen, and you have this idea, you have this dream, you have this thing that you want to do that you really… I mean, at first you probably don’t believe in it fully; you’re kind of like “oh, yeah, well it would be really cool. Let’s try it.” And then you try it and it actually turns into something, and then it starts to snowball, and then it starts to become this magical journey that you could’ve never imagined. I mean, that’s what happened for me with music and my band. I mean, we started out in my parents’ basement and we had all these aspirations, these dreams, and it sort of led to the life I have today. And I guess in some ways being the champion of this book and being the champion of this young person that has his entire life in front of him—if I can in any way help him to get on his way to the life that maybe he never dreamed could be possible. I mean, it’s just remarkable. And I got to meet him in Toronto a few weeks ago. The nicest kid. And he’s just happy, truly genuinely happy, but also kind of amazed at how this entire thing sort of evolved. It has potential to kind of send him on the journey to be a writer and to keep writing more books. I mean it’s incredible. It’s so touching to see it.

During that same interview, Comeau revealed that he’d only read two of the other Canada Reads titles. Will he read the others? What if he finds that one or both are better than Homes: A Refugee Story? What then? Will he turn his back on the nicest kid?

Would Justin Trudeau?
I bet not.

In working with the “Canada Books team” to choose their respective titles, contestants come to represent another team: author and publisher; the latter having suggested the title in the first place.

I haven’t read a single one of the books in contention this year, but I want Homes: A Refugee Story to win. My reason has nothing whatsoever to do with reading. I expect I’m not alone.

—From CNQ 104, spring 2019

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