Five books, five panelists, one great title fight. – Canada Reads 2010 website
One of my favorite recent discoveries is the annual, weeklong Canadian radio program (or programme, if you’d prefer) Canada Reads. It’s a national book club of sorts that broadcasts in early March (8th – 12th). Each year five notable Canadians serve as panelists and champion one book by a Canadian author that they believe all of Canada should read. Those chosen as panelists are most often associated with some aspect of the arts or media. They’re typically journalists, actors, authors, or musicians but not always. This year a celebrated Olympic athlete is joining the discussion. After the year’s titles are announced in December, several months of discussion about the books follow on the CBC’s sponsored blog and podcasts, as well as on independent blogs. Then, in that thrilling week of March, the panelists verbally duke it out to determine which one book will be selected as the year’s winner. Every day a book is eliminated until just one remains.
Basically, it’s a book nerd’s fantasy.
I discovered Canada Reads this past summer when I learned that one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Sarah Slean, had been a panelist last year. Lucky for me, the podcasts of the show are still available through iTunes. I downloaded them and then spent the better part of a night listening to the drama unfold. I was smitten.
As I listened, I asked myself: “Why doesn’t the United States do something like this?” I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer. I don’t think it’s because our country’s too large or too diverse. You’d be hard pressed to find a country larger or more diverse (geographically and culturally) than Canada. And I don’t think it’s because no one reads anymore. I suppose it could be because I live in a large university town, but I see people reading everywhere I go. The impact of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust books and Oprah’s Book Club (you knew I had to mention it) on book sales proves that Americans are always on the lookout for good reads. The success of NPR shows like “This American Life,” “Fresh Air,” and “A Prairie Home Companion” demonstrate that Americans still listen to radio programs (or their podcast equivalents) and still have time in their lives for storytelling and cultural criticism. Furthermore, the popularity of local citywide “reads” and the large number of book clubs suggests that there might be an audience for a national forum.
So, why isn’t there an America Reads? I’d be interested in your thoughts.
It’s fun to imagine the possibilities if there were an America Reads. Just think of the potential: championing American authors, boosting book sales, fostering pride in American culture, and (of the most interest to us here at Librations) creating an opportunity for libraries to connect with their communities. In my dream world, libraries would provide a large number of the selected books, sponsor events and book groups, and might even be inspired to create their own, local book contests. It’d be a great way to bring people together and a positive force during a difficult time like this.
What book(s) would you choose if you were a panelist? It’s a fun question to ponder. Ever since I listened to last year’s Canada Reads, I’ve been mentally shadow boxing with books I encounter.
Choosing a book (just one book!) to represent is not easy. Apart from the potential clash of personal versus public tastes, the problem is that programs like Canada Reads can serve two very different functions. A national campaign can either rescue worthy books from obscurity or allow the nation the opportunity to re-visit old favorites. Ultimately it’s up to the individual panelist to decide which tactic he or she wants to take. In past years, lesser known books and out-of-print titles have benefited from their inclusion in the program. King Leary, the late Paul Quarrington’s 1987 novel, was out of print until Dave Bidini selected it for Canada Reads 2008. In the greatest underdog story yet on the program, King Leary not only was re-released in print but ended up winning the year’s main prize.
The Canada Reads 2010 choices have drawn heavy criticism because they are, for the most part, contemporary classics. It’s not that the books aren’t well respected, just that, as Quill & Quire stated in a recent article, the list is “heavy on household names or books that have already had their share of media attention.” Judging from articles and blog posts written about Canada Reads 2010, many Canadians — readers and literary critics alike — are disappointed that this year’s list of selections doesn’t include any surprises. Blogger Kerry Clare, of Pickle Me This, wrote, “What I wanted was what I found from (most of) the 2009 lineup – book recommendations out of nowhere, books I’d never pick up otherwise, that challenge my sensibilities, and that I might just fall in love with.” Her disappointment led to the creation of her own reading contest, called Canada Reads Independently, which will roughly imitate Canada Reads 2010’s timeline. The National Post is also sponsoring an alternative reading contest, called Canada Also Reads, through their column “The Afterword.” [Update 2/18: The Keepin' It Real Book Club launched their own spin-off today: Civilians Read. The same five Canada Reads 2010 books will be championed but this time by "civilians" who hope to "say some smart things, spark some interesting discussion, and determine how weighty the panelist-X factor is."]
I love this turn of events, although it serves to make me even more jealous. I fantasize about just one reading contest and these people are creating their own versions because they want to improve on an already great idea. The spunk and enthusiasm delights me. In my mind, it proves the value of a program like Canada Reads. It’s inspired Canadian citizens to create new ways to share books they love and support the nation’s authors. What a cool phenomenon.
I had not read any of the Canada Reads 2010 titles prior to their selection so I’ve been having fun working through them over the past two months. I’ve read three so far and have confidence that I’ll finish before the March 8th deadline. I’ve listed this year’s titles for you, in case you want to read along too. If you’re interested in Canada Reads, make sure to check out the show’s website, where you’ll find author and panelist interviews, the official blog, book excerpts, and more.
Canada Reads 2010 Selections:
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott published by Freehand Books
Defended by Simi Sara
Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler published by Vintage/Random House of Canada
Defended by Michel Vézina
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland published by St. Martin’s Press/H. B. Fenn and Company
Defended by Roland Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon
The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy published by Douglas & McIntyre
Defended by Samantha Nutt
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald published by Vintage/Random House of Canada
Defended by Perdita Felicien