Wab Kinew was recently announced as the new host of the show, the fourth in its history (Mary Walsh hosted in 2002 and Bill Richardson, my favorite moderator to date, hosted until Ghomeshi took over in 2008). Coincidentally, I recently finished listening to all 13 editions of the program so I thought it would be a good time to spout some thoughts on this important literary institution.
First of all, here’s some Canada Reads facts: After 13 years, 65 books have been featured; Margaret Atwood is the most represented author with three books entered (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood); only two others have had two books appear: Mordecai Richler (Barney’s Version and Cocksure) and Joseph Boyden (Three Day Road and The Orenda); two books of poetry have been listed: Whylah Falls and Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets; three panelists have subsequently had their books appear on the show: Nalo Hopkinson, Lisa Moore and Dave Bidini; six French language books in translation have appeared and two have won; and in terms of award winners, five Giller Winners, six GG winners (various categories), one Booker winner, and four Leacock Medal winners have been on the list. A victory guarantees No. 1 best-seller status.
In the Skin of a Lion, Next Episode, Rockbound, King Leary, and Nikolski are some of the previous winners Canada Reads; Whylah Falls, Sarah Binks, Beautiful Losers, No Crystal Stair, Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets, Brown Girl in the Ring, The Song of Kahunsha, Children of My Heart, Icefields, and Fruit were some of the previous contenders on Canada Reads. What do these two lists have in common? None of these titles – all absolutely fantastic books– would even register on the Canada Reads radar in its current incarnation. And this is a great disservice to the Canadian reading public.
In recent years, I have been growing ever more despondent with the titles and nature of the discussions on the show. The show is no longer a civil, elevated, and respectful discussion about Canadian writing. Canada Reads has become a game show. Gone are the days when panelists compliment others’ books without being forced to by the host; gone are the days where someone votes against their own book because they were swayed by someone else’s arguments (perhaps a foreshadowing of some sort of Justin Trudeau’s political career); and gone are the days where panelists don’t take votes against their title like a personal attack against them. The show has become a spectacle where the personalities of the panelists are the star, not the books (further evidenced by the live studio audience). In the last few editions, the panelists with the most articulate, literary arguments – like those made by Stephen Lewis, Jay Baruchel, or Sara Quin – are drowned out by the more aggressive, loud, and frankly loud panelists – like Wab Kinew or Ali Velshi.
In terms of titles, the last couple years have been a bit of a letdown. I own at least 30 books that would never have crossed my radar had it not been for this show. But, the switch to crowd sourcing for titles has ensured that, barring some kind of social media campaign by an author, only “big” books that are already in the public literary consciousness make the cut instead of a mix of well known titles and more obscure choices. 2011, the first year this approach was taken, there were two new books to add to my shelf; in 2012 there were three to add but only one that I wasn’t already aware of; and in both 2013 and 2014 I had already owned every title.
I suspect that 2015, especially given that the host wants “topical” books, is going to be a disappointment. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make numerous suggestions, pick a horse, listen to every episode and hope it wins. So, here are my five picks – a mix of the well know and the obscure – for Canada Reads 2015 One Book to Break Barriers:
The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown
The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton
Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
Player One by Douglas Coupland
Knife on the Table by Jacques Godbout