Friday, February 22, 2008

Raggin' Canada Reads

Steven Beattie and Alex Good are conducting their own two-man panel on this year's edition of Canada Reads over at Steven's That Shakespeherian Rag.

I have to admit, I've never really listened to the thing, though I did, I think, play a very minor, offstage role in the selection of one of the contending books way back when the program was a toddler. I pretty much concur, though, with Stephen and Alex's opening take on the program, which is that, despite initial suspicions, it has at least proved itself to be a less boring, more readerly approach to books than some of the other big book events/awards out there. (Cough cough Giller cough.)

I'm not as enthusiastic about the use of quasi-celebrities as panelists, but I agree that it's no worse, and potentially better, than a jury stocked with the Usual CanLit Subjects. The problem with quasi-celebrities from well outside the book world is that one of their main priorities in these things tends to be demonstrating just how much they loooove books. I don't think this always happens, and I think some of the more counterintuitive choices Canada Reads has made have been solid – and occasionally more than that, from what I've been told – but all too often, when you bring someone in from way, way outside the book world, this vaguely condescending tone appears that says: "It's so wonderful that people write books. And books are just, well, wonderful, aren't they? I'm so proud of you people." That doesn't just happen at Canada Reads, but in any situation where a non-bookish V.I.P. gets to hold forth on the wonder that is literature. I've had to stand through dozens of long, earnest speeches by bank execs and actors and radio hosts and elected officials and dignitaries that amounted to a pat on the head for the ink-stained wretches in the room. The eyes tend to get sore from all the rolling, and the bar usually stops serving during the speeches.

But again, looking outside the CanLit oatmeal box is often a good idea. I just think there are lot of high-to-medium profile cultural commentators around who could at least be relied upon to take the goodness of books as a given and get on with seeing if any of the ones before them are any good.*

* I should make clear, lest anyone think I'm arguing that bookishness is next to godliness, that I'm not saying that these cultural commentators are inherently wise or even trustworthy, just that – theoretically, anyway; are there any other ways I can qualify this? – they'd be less likely to approach literature as a kind of charming folk craft that has not yet been snuffed out. (Problem is, a whole lot of its practitioners treat literature this way, however intentionally. Even I have my doubts sometimes.)

UPDATE: giving credit where credit is due, the discussion on this year's Canada Reads – as described by Steven and Alex, at least – sounds better so far than the kind of thing I was describing above. I can detect, even within their descriptions, the presence of certain kinds of book talk the likes of which tends to boil my boots, but still, it's better than it could be.

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